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Honoring 'The Greatest'

Ali Center explores boxer’s diverse history

More than a ‘boxing museum,’ the center presents
all facets of the heavyweight champion’s life, values

By Don Ward
Editor

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 city’s other attractions.

February 2006 IN Cover

February 2006
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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 plaza.
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.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done before it’s finished. We haven’t 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 it’s 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 in April.

Photo provided

The 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 champ’s prize fighting daughter by a previous marriage, several actors, including Jim Carrey, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and even former President Bill Clinton.
Ali Center officials have raised about $6 million toward their goal of establishing a $20 million endowment fund to be used to cover the center’s expenses, according to the center’s 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 Ali’s boxing history is certainly part of the story,” said Jeanie B. Kahnke, the Ali Center’s vice president for Communications. “It’s about Muhammad Ali’s life and about reaching one’s potential. And for the sports enthusiast, boxing is a draw.”

Photo provided

The expansive lobby at the Ali Center is available for rent for private functions.

The museum offers 2 1/2 levels of “visitor experience” that celebrate Ali’s 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. Ali’s activism and courage to take a stand was considered rare at that time of Civil Rights unrest, especially coming from an African American.
“It’s not sugar-coated; it’s factual and it’s balanced,” Kahnke said of the exhibits that tell Ali’s story. “The Ali Center is not a place to sugar-coat his story. It’s a place to tell his story and use it for motivation. For this brash, young, black athlete to stand up and say, ‘I’m 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 Ali’s fights and memorabilia, such as Ali’s boxing gloves and a jewel-studded robe that was a gift to Ali from Elvis Presley. There’s even a punching bag for would-be boxers to practice their skills.
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.

Photo provided

The 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 Ali’s 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 center’s promotional literature.
The center’s 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.

Photo provided

The Ali Center features several exhibits, including this one on spirituality.

Today, Ali lives on a farm in Berrien Springs, Mich. He suffers from Parkinson’s 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 center’s 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.

Photo provided

The 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 center.
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 Ali” line.
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 center’s website.
Kahnke says the marketing campaign has not yet begun but that visitors have already come from cities around the world and that Louisville’s 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.
“We’ve 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.
“I’m 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. It’s about a way of life and Ali’s strong moral values and to see how those values came into place in his life.”

Map provided

When 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: www.alicenter.org.

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