It’s funny how we associate places with our heroes. When I got the chance to visit Louisville, Kentucky last year I jumped at it. Mainly because it’s the hometown of musical idols My Morning Jacket. The country rock band have a reasonable following stateside but are only just gaining airplay and acknowledgement in the UK with thier 6th album released last year. Even though I didn’t get time to pursue the full pilgrimage I had in mind, walking the same hallowed streets felty quietly special to me, imbuing every song lyric with fresh meaning.
Apart from a certain fried chicken magnate and one of America’s premier sporting events, the Kentucky Derby, Louisville doesn’t offer up too many other claims to fame.
Ali at 70
The city’s best known living son is probably Muhammad Ali, who turns 70 today. I confess I’ve never held a great fascination with Ali, or for boxing in general, but the museum created in honour of the icnoic champ certainly packs a punch and had me walking away with plenty of admiration for the man.
Opened in 2005, the Muhammed Ali Center pays an impressive tribute to Ali who despite being three times World Heavyweight Champion, is now sadly ravaged by Parkinson’s Disease and seems to belong as a fond memory in our imagination and the sporting annals.
The Center tells Ali’s story with no small measure of flair and a suitably animated range of techniques, while also reflecting on a time of some social upheaval. And if you don’t care for boxing, well it doesn’t really matter since the museum is much more concerned with Ali the man, than the fighter.
One panel displays the childhood bike that was stolen from him aged 8 and the policeman who befriended him and suggested he take up boxing lessons to help him stand up for himself. Another recreates the 1960s lunch counter where in racially segregated America he was forbidden entrance, along with all fellow black Americans, despite his standing as a national icon.
From the stairwell you can look out onto the swelling Ohio River, in which Ali was rumoured to have thrown his Olympic Gold Medal in protest at the divided country he had come home to. Ali’s growing political consciousness – and eventual activism – in the 60s and 70s is highlighted, showing how he frequently used his fame to speak out about racial inequality and the Vietnam War. His more recent years as a philanthropist are also covered.
Alongside the vast collection of photos, posters and memrobillia, such as his lavishly decoarted robe, are Ali’s own sketches and poetry which remind you what made him a truly memorable figure, beyond his obvious sporting prowess – his great wit, charisma, way with words and creative spark.
And of course there is liberal use of film footage which established his reputation as a legendary orator and performer across the globe, both in and out of the ring. The pre and post fight interviews and numerous chat show appearances are given pride of place, with the full footage of ‘the Rumble in the Jungle’, Ali’s famous 1974 comeback bout with George Foreman, dramatically projected onto the canvass floor of a specially constructed boxing ring which you look down on from above.
Get in the Ring
Good use is made of fun interactives too. You can try your hand on the punchbag (nowhere near as easy as it looks!), step into the ring to try on the training weights and punchbag for size and even pit yourself against a virtual Ali, as a projection of his weaving shadow toys with you and tests your reactions.
A basement floor is given over to visual art inspired by the great man while a surprisingly large chunk of the space is dedicated to Ali’s spiritual beliefs, which these days, rather than being pegged to the staunch Islamism he is famously associated with, are defined as being free from any one particular religion, promoting instead ‘a journey of love, truth, peace and understanding.’ Interestingly though the museum does not shy away from showing some of the less palatable views Ali subscribed to, such as his male chauvinism.
A Premature Memorial?
One of the last panels includes a recent statement from Ali. In this he says that he doesn’t feel sorry for himself and wants no one else to feel sorry for him, but ultimately it is hard to shake off the feeling that the museum has made a powerful memorial to a man who is still with us, even if not entirely as he is remembered in his prime.
Ali once said, ‘Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep insde them: a desire, a dream, a vision.’ This knock out museum champions its subject with palpable vision and is bound to inspire awe for Ali and his manifest greatness.
I’m grateful to the Kentucky Tourist Board who hosted me on this trip in April 2011.