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Muhammad Ali

‘A son of Louisville, a hero to the world’

On the day after his death, Ali’s hometown remembers his life

They came, black and white, young and old, boxing fans and not, to honor The Greatest.

Louisville, Kentucky, woke up Saturday to the news that Muhammad Ali had died overnight, prompting a restrained but loving outpouring for this city’s most famous son. Ignoring a string of soft rain showers, fans brought balloons, flowers and fond memories to his childhood home, city fathers spoke of his inspiration and a steady stream of people toured the downtown museum erected to preserve his legacy.

They came not just to honor a man whose boxing talent, unmatched swagger and independence captivated the entire world, but also to honor the humanitarian, philanthropist and global figure that Ali remained long after his boxing career was over.

At the Muhammad Ali Center, a five-story museum overlooking the Ohio River, people left trinkets at an outdoor plaza before venturing inside to browse the exhibits and relive the highlights of Ali’s illustrious career.

“I felt like I needed to come up here. He did so much for the city, for the world,” said Bruce Thomas, 60, as he left the museum. “He just represents so much. In some ways, you don’t realize it until he’s gone.”

April Linton, 43, said that as great a boxer as Ali was, she had come to honor the man who was willing to stand up for who he was. “His beliefs set him apart,” she said. “That made him a hero to me.”

Mourners gather at a memorial following the death of boxing legend Muhammad Ali outside the Muhammad Ali Center June 4, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali died at a Phoenix-area hospital, where he had spent the past few days being treated for respiratory complications.

Mourners gather at a memorial following the death of boxing legend Muhammad Ali outside the Muhammad Ali Center June 4 in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali died at a Phoenix-area hospital, where he had spent the past few days being treated for respiratory complications.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Inside the Ali Center, photographs showed the range of Ali’s influence. There is Ali with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Over there, he is with the Dalai Lama. There is Ali talking a distraught man off the ledge of a building in Los Angeles. There he is, tassels flying, battling Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden. And over there, he is gritting it out with a broken jaw against a muscled Ken Norton.

A museum tour was something Alison Jones, 55, did not want to miss. She called her grown sons as soon as she had heard Ali had died. They loved Ali even though they only saw him fight in old footage, and she thought the family should come out to the museum to honor him.

She remembers the controversy surrounding Ali’s decision to join the Nation of Islam, and his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War. She remembers that some people believed he was a coward, or somehow un-American. But not so in her father’s house. “He was a hero in my house for standing up for what is right,” she said.

Jones’ oldest son was a student at a Louisville middle school when Ali came to visit nearly 20 years ago. Ali, already slowed by Parkinson’s disease, still put his hands up and playfully challenged the young man. It is a moment her son never forgot. Nor his mother.

Just hours after Ali’s death was announced, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer presided over a ceremony in which city flags were lowered to half-staff and Ali was remembered as an inspiration.

“Muhammad Ali belongs to the world, but he only has one hometown,” Fischer said. “The Louisville Lip spoke to everyone, but we heard him in a way no one else could.”

Ali’s funeral will be held Friday in Louisville. It will include a motorcade through the city and a memorial service with eulogies by former President Bill Clinton, entertainer Billy Crystal and sports journalist Bryant Gumbel.

The funeral plans were made years ago based on Ali’s wishes. He wanted the memorial to be “open to everyone,” family spokesman Bob Gunnell said.

The day’s effusive tributes made it easy to forget the racial reality of the Louisville Ali was born into 74 years ago. In many ways, it is change he helped create. Ali grew up in a tidy bungalow on the city’s West End, the black side of town, amid what people call “soft Jim Crow.” There was little of the brutality that played out in the Deep South of that era, but there was almost complete segregation. Ali’s family was middle-class by the standard of the day. His father, Cassius Clay Sr., worked as a sign painter and dabbled as an artist; his mother, Odessa, did some domestic work but mainly focused on raising their two sons.

Mourners leave flowers outside Muhammad Ali'

Mourners leave flowers outside Muhammad Ali’s childhood home following his death June 4 in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali died at a Phoenix-area hospital, where he had spent the past few days being treated for respiratory complications.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

In his old neighborhood, people recalled early Ali lore. About how hard he worked tirelessly as a teenager to make himself into a world-class boxer. He told anybody that would listen that he was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world. They talked about how Ali drank water laced with garlic. He added raw eggs to his milk. He ran everywhere and would even shadowbox trees.

There were more flowers and balloons around a historical marker outside the two-bedroom home where Ali grew up. Restoration work on the house was completed recently and it is now a museum featuring family photos, period furnishings, artwork by Ali’s father, and a typewritten copy of Ali’s first professional boxing contract.

Thalisa Price, 38, stood outside taking pictures of the house as visitors streamed in. She said she would not have been anywhere else. “He always gave back so much,” said Price, who lives nearby. “Because of him, I had no choice but to be a boxing fan.”

On the porch of Ali’s childhood home, someone had left a pair of old black boxing gloves and matching headgear. There was also a short, neatly lettered note. It read:

“Rest in power champ. The G.O.A.T. that never compromised, never stopped standing up for justice and peace. A son of Louisville, a hero to the whole world.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.