Center explores boxers diverse history
than a boxing museum, the center presents
all facets of the heavyweight champions life, values
LOUISVILLE (February 2006) Perched on the
downtown Louisville riverfront, a massive structure has grown up on
what was formerly a condemned site where a Kingfish restaurant once
stood. The $54 million Muhammad Ali Center, dedicated to the life, activism
and, of course, boxing career of the Olympic gold medalist and former
three-time heavyweight champion now rises majestically over the Ohio
River and is nestled amid the citys other attractions.
Both Editions' Cover
Louisvillians may remember the old Kingfish and the controversy
that swirled when former Mayor Dave Armstrong pushed for the city to
purchase the land and develop it into a major attraction.
I feel like I helped birth the center because I was roundly criticized
by the (Louisville) Courier-Journal when, as mayor, I bid on that property
(for the city to buy it). But that was the only way it could have been
bought. And today as I sit here in my office (in the National City Tower),
I can look down on it, and I consider it one of my crowning achievements
as mayor, Armstrong said in a telephone interview Jan. 27.
The city initially bid $2.7 million for the property and the area just
west of it. That bid was bolstered by $10 million from the state Legislature
and another $5 million from the Ford Motor Co., Armstrong recalled.
The Parking Authority of River City, a Louisville Metro agency, issued
$16 million in bonds to build a garage under the center for use by visitors
and employees of nearby companies. The bonds also will pay for a new
plaza and a pedway over Sixth Street that will connect with the Belvedere
Together with private investment, the facility has become an $80 million
project that, when finished, will include offices, an outdoor amphitheater,
a reflecting pool with a glass art fountain, and contemporary art museum
on the west side of the plaza.
An economic impact study conducted by the Ali Center estimates that
400,000 people a year will visit. That converts to between $7 million
and $8 million in economic impact to the city, officials say.
Theres still a lot of work to be done before its finished.
We havent even touted it to the rest of the world, and we had
over 200 representatives from the media around the world here in Louisville
(covering the soft opening in November). I think its going to
get Louisville a lot of worldwide publicity.
Armstrong, who today works at the law firm of Greenbaum, Doll &
McDonald and as a consultant on creating extreme sports parks, sits
on the board of the Ali Center. He praises the city leaders for moving
forward with the Ali Center project that is still unfolding. The exterior
of the six-floor building and the elaborate outdoor plaza and pedway
are still under construction, with completion targeted for fall. But
museum officials are planning a hard opening of the center
Ali Center overlooks the
Ohio River in downtown Louisville.
The April event will mark the official opening of the
Ali Center, officials say, but it will likely be hard to top the soft
opening and community dedication celebration held Nov. 20 that attracted
an all-star cast of celebrities to Louisville. The Celebrity Gala on
Nov. 19 drew 1,000 people and included The Greatest himself, now 63,
his fourth wife, Lonnie, 48, their son, Alis, 14, Laila Ali, the champs
prize fighting daughter by a previous marriage, several actors, including
Jim Carrey, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and even former President
Ali Center officials have raised about $6 million toward their goal
of establishing a $20 million endowment fund to be used to cover the
centers expenses, according to the centers president, Michael
Fox. At the time of the November soft opening, Fox reported that of
the $54 million to open the center, $34.6 million went to building costs
and $9 million for its exhibits. The center, which now has 27 full and
part-time employees, expects to operate on a $4.6 million annual budget,
with about $2.5 million coming from admissions.
The real message we want to get out is to let people know that
this museum is not just about boxing, although Alis boxing history
is certainly part of the story, said Jeanie B. Kahnke, the Ali
Centers vice president for Communications. Its about
Muhammad Alis life and about reaching ones potential. And
for the sports enthusiast, boxing is a draw.
expansive lobby at the Ali Center is available for rent for private
The museum offers 2 1/2 levels of visitor experience
that celebrate Alis accomplishments in the ring but also explores
his conversion to Nation of Islam and his refusal of the draft into
the U.S. Army for service in the Vietnam conflict. His defiance resulted
in his 3 1/2-year imposed exile from boxing and removal of his title
while the courts prosecuted the case. Alis activism and courage
to take a stand was considered rare at that time of Civil Rights unrest,
especially coming from an African American.
Its not sugar-coated; its factual and its balanced,
Kahnke said of the exhibits that tell Alis story. The Ali
Center is not a place to sugar-coat his story. Its a place to
tell his story and use it for motivation. For this brash, young, black
athlete to stand up and say, Im the greatest
that in itself was unusual because African Americans did not do that
in that era.
Besides exploring historical events, the center also acts as an educational
center that promotes an underlying message of inspiration and personal
achievement, said Kahnke.
Ali, who during his fighting career was known by several nicknames,
including the Louisville Lip and his self-dubbed The
Greatest, is celebrated through many exhibits, on-demand film
clips from 15 of Alis fights and memorabilia, such as Alis
boxing gloves and a jewel-studded robe that was a gift to Ali from Elvis
Presley. Theres even a punching bag for would-be boxers to practice
Perhaps most impressive is the 13-minute autobiographical film, The
Greatest, which was produced especially for the center and narrated
by actor Samuel L. Jackson. It is shown on the floor of a 20-foot boxing
ring that was used in the 2001 movie, Ali. Visitors watch
from the floor above the ring.
Ali Center offers an interactive exhibit allowing visitors to
hone their skills.
The story of how Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. became Muhammad
Ali is told at the museum through six media stations, each representing
a different core value of his life: respect, confidence, conviction,
dedication, spirituality and giving. Through these stations, visitors
can learn how Alis values guided him throughout his life: the
hard work necessary to be the best athlete he could be, the strength
and courage to stand up for what he believed, and the inspiration to
reach people around the world and dedicate himself to helping others,
according to the centers promotional literature.
The centers exhibits trace Ali from his Louisville roots as a
12-year-old to his gold medal at age 18 at the 1960 Rome Olympics, to
his first heavyweight title over Sonny Liston in 1965, to his two later
heavyweight title comebacks over George Foreman in 1974 and Leon Spinks
in 1978, to his internationally televised lighting of the torch to officially
start the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The torch he used that night in Atlanta,
along with numerous title belts and other memorabilia from his career,
are housed in the center for all to see.
Ali Center features several exhibits, including this one on spirituality.
Today, Ali lives on a farm in Berrien Springs, Mich. He
suffers from Parkinsons syndrome, a degenerative neurological
condition that affects motor skills such as walking and talking. It
can be caused by blows to the head, which Ali certainly experienced
countless times over his 25-year boxing career.
Some of the other highlights of the new Ali Center include:
Two galleries that will be changed at the end of 2006. The Howard
L. Bingham Gallery currently houses photographs of and by Bingham, a
longtime Ali confidant and the centers honorary curator of photography.
The LeRoy Nieman Gallery currently houses 86 paintings and 18 photographs
from the most celebrated sports artist of the past 50 years.
A sixth-floor, 80,000-square-foot multi-use room that can be
rented for receptions, meetings and other events. It can hold up to
300 people and has kitchen facilities and a balcony that overlooks the
Ohio River. It is already booked for Thunder Over Louisville and costs
about $5,000 to rent for a Friday or Saturday evening event.
Ali Center features the film "The Greatest" that is
shown on a screen covering the floor of a boxing ring.
Two classrooms that will be used for educational
programs involving school children throughout Kentuckiana. Several pilot
programs are under way now at 25 area schools to help develop curriculum
that can be incorporated into those schools next fall.
An archival library to house information collected and used by
The classrooms, administrative offices and archival library are the
only areas still under construction. All of the areas open to visitors
are open, Kahnke said. Workers are putting some finishing touches on
them before the April grand opening.
A spacious lobby and auditorium, both of which are available
for rent for private meetings and functions.
A cafe that offers lunch items and light refreshments.
A gift shop that is open to the public even without admission
to the museum. It offers a variety of items, including posters, collectibles,
books, CDs, activewear and the officially licensed Adidas Muhammad
The center also plans to hold a variety of programs throughout the year.
On Feb. 19, to mark Black History Month, Bingham will speak at the center.
Details are available on the centers website.
Kahnke says the marketing campaign has not yet begun but that visitors
have already come from cities around the world and that Louisvilles
location on two major interstates will help generate traffic. She believes
word of mouth advertising will also serve the center well because of
the experience it offers visitors.
Weve been overwhelmed by comments from people who say the
experience exceeded their expectations, Kahnke said.
Armstrong, meanwhile, sees the center as another crown jewel in the
heart of the city that will only flourish with time.
Im proud of it. And I think it will become a strong attraction
for the entire region, Armstrong said. This center is not
just about a boxer. Its about a way of life and Alis strong
moral values and to see how those values came into place in his life.
complete, the Ali Center will include an outdoor plaza and pedway
connecting it to the Louisville Belvedere plaza.
The Muhammad Ali Center is located at 144 N.
Sixth St. in downtown Louisville. Admission is $9 adults, $8 seniors,
$5 students, $4 children (ages 6-12) and $7 for groups of 20 or more.
For more information, call the Ali Center at (502) 584-9254 or visit:
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