02-19-2017  8:52 am      •     

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Muhammad Ali can still draw a big crowd.

The boxing great took center stage in his hometown Saturday night to celebrate the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center, a six-story tribute to Ali's storied career and a legacy to his ideals of peace and tolerance.

The Hollywood-style event, at a performing arts center next door to the Ali Center, drew an adoring cast of actors, singers, athletes and even a former president, Bill Clinton — reflecting the champ's star appeal.

"The world is a better place because of you," Clinton said. "You thrilled us as a fighter and you inspired us even more as a force for peace and reconciliation, understanding and respect."

Though frail, Ali still flashed his famous playfulness. As Clinton praised him, Ali discreetly put two fingers in a V-shape behind the former president's head, drawing laughter from the crowd and Clinton.

Clinton said Ali was unmatched as a fighter: "No one was ever more beautiful or brash or bright or powerful or fast in the ring. It was breathtaking."

Clinton said Ali's greatness continued long after his boxing skills faded and his career ended.
"As your body slowed down, your heart speeded up, and I never saw anything quite like it," Clinton said.

Ali entered the stage holding his wife's hand, and it was Lonnie Ali who spoke for him as the champ sat on a stool. She said the center's opening showed that "if you work hard and you believe in yourself, you can accomplish great things."

Video clips showed a brash, fast-talking Ali and his epic bouts. Another showed a trembling Ali, who is battling Parkinson's disease, lighting the torch at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. A parade of speakers said the three-time heavyweight champion displayed courage outside the ring for his stance on such fundamental issues as war, civil rights and religious expression.

"Some people are overwhelmed by their dreams, but Ali's dreams made him bolder and stronger and fearless," said veteran broadcaster Sir David Frost.

Frost said that Ali's response to racism "changed the way that Black people were perceived around the world. His strength and his tenacity as a fighter captured the world's attention, but it was his insistence on his own value that made him a hero."

Bryant Gumbel said Ali showed remarkable character for his stance against the Vietnam War. Ali refused to serve in the military during the war, a stand that cost him his heavyweight title. Gumbel said "it took bravery to get into the ring and risk his pretty face, it took real guts to step out of the ring and risk everything."

Gumbel said Ali's "principled views" eventually won him the admiration of those who once reviled him.

"The lesson of his life is that while our choices may sometimes put us at odds with others, we should always be willing to exercise our independence and never compromise our beliefs simply to curry public favor," he said.

Ali received a videotaped congratulations from President Jimmy Carter, who praised the champ for standing up for racial equality and promoting peace. Actor Chris Tucker said he was star-struck by meeting Ali.

"You just inspired me and my whole generation," Tucker said.

Singer-actor Kris Kristofferson, who sang for his longtime friend at the celebration, was with Ali on Friday when the champ toured exhibits showing him in his prime.

"I think he was awed by the realization of a dream," Kristofferson said Saturday night while making a red-carpet entrance for the celebration. "I was so awestruck, myself."

"To read his words that were shown throughout the center, remind you of what a pure soul he's always been."

Across the street, about 200 admirers chanted Ali's name when the champ arrived for the celebration. Ali struck a boxing pose and waved to his fans.

In a scene reminiscent of the era when Ali was in his prime as a fighter, a couple of peace activists protested war — this time in Iraq.

Lonnie Ali said in an interview Friday that her husband hopes for a peaceful solution in Iraq. "He just wishes there could have been an alternative way to achieve what we wanted to achieve without going to war," she said.

She added that her husband — one of the world's most famous Muslims — also "abhors terrorism. The things that are being done in the name of Islam, he abhors that because it distorts the religion."

Ali basked in adulation for the second time this month. The 63-year-old fighter recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, from President Bush, who called Ali "the greatest of all time."

Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville in 1942, learned to fight after having his bicycle stolen as a boy. He won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and went on to win the heavyweight title three times as a professional until retiring in 1981. He changed his name after converting to Islam and now lives in Berrien Springs, Mich.

Lonnie Ali has said her husband hopes the center, an $80 million project, will inspire visitors, especially youngsters, to reach their potential and promote peace. The center opened to the public on Monday.

— The Associated Press

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