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There is a lot of lip service this week to the man we used to call “The Louisville Lip.”
You most likely know him as Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest boxer in history and unquestionably the most colorful ambassador our state and city – and probably country – ever has had.
Many of us, however, still think of him as Cassius Clay, a lanky kid who 50 years ago this week made boxing a topic of true interest in Kentucky by establishing himself not only a powerful and poetic pugilist but also as a Titanic, untenable touchstone for everyone.
Kentuckians of a certain age remember those days in Rome 1960, when the young man known as Clay punched his way to the light-heavyweight gold medal. In his rambling analysis of those Games, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss spent paragraph after paragraph detailing Clay’s powerful success in the ring, his ebullient proclamations of greatness and his continuous wooing of Olympic track star Wilma Rudolph.
And in those paragraphs we see the embryo of the boxer who emerged from the West End of Louisville to a stage far bigger and more acclaimed than any Kentuckian I can imagine.
Let’s go back to the 1960s. You are in elementary school, and you follow sports in The Courier-Journal and on WHAS radio and TV. You hear about this kid who won the Olympics, and you hear he is boxing his way toward the top.
He tells you loudly and with great animation that he can “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” He tells you he is “the greatest” and “the prettiest.” He tells you in ways that attract your attention in wonder rather than turning away in derisive disgust.
One day when you’re in the fourth grade, Clay climbs into a ring with a man named Sonny Liston. You don’t know much about boxing. You’ve watched Tomorrow’s Champions on WAVE, a program where Clay got his start, and you’ve read that this Liston guy is not a very nice man who likely will quiet Clay quickly.
Then you tune in the old Silvertone radio on your grandmother’s kitchen table and listen to the blow-by-blow. You hear Liston go down. You hear about Clay’s dancing around. You hear Liston not coming out for Round 4. You hear that this man-child from Louisville is now the heavyweight champion of the world.
And suddenly you have a new hero to embrace, someone to crowd in there among the stars of baseball, basketball and football who have earned your undying support. This guy is local. He is ours. We must support him.
And then you watch as it all changes. First the religion and the name, when Muhammad Ali is born. Then as a political activist and soldier in the world’s racial wars, he fights induction into the armed forces in a personal protest of the Vietnam War, a position you now know that probably would have been more popular if not for its rather repugnant roots.
You see Ali come back from being suspended and lose the first fight of his career, to Joe Frazier. You think your hero is fallen, but then you listen to the world and not your own pragmatic brain.
Ali in the early 1970s has become a hero of the world. His name is known in every corner of the globe, from the teeming cities of his home country to the vacant villages of the deepest corner of Africa.
And that’s where he goes in 1974, to fight a behemoth named George Foreman in what was called the Rumble in The Jungle. The natives chant his name, proclaiming him as their own, their support buoying his challenge.
There is no radio that night. You scurry to the newspaper where you work, and The Associated Press machine churns out round-by-round reports. A coworker and friend is there, too. It’s about 10 p.m. on a weeknight, but there’s excitement as you read the description, the machine’s bell chiming its urgent ring as the next round is transcribed and delivered.
You read how Ali danced and ducked and introduced his rope-a-dope technique, until the powerful and menacing Foreman had punched himself weary. Then the lean and feline Ali danced in close and put Foreman down and out, returning the heavyweight title to its rightful owner once again.
You and your buddy dance, shout and high five and then go out to celebrate the return of the world’s greatest sports hero.
Fast forward to 1980, to the final days of Ali, when he is about to try to win the heavyweight title a fourth time, a futile finish against Larry Holmes. You are working for a different newspaper with a guy named Frank Kimmel, who came out of Louisville, and he tells you a story, a story so good you put it in print.
He describes how he was a pretty good young boxer in the Mayor & County Judge Youth Program in Louisville. He describes how one day his coaches asked him to spar against this skinny young kid. Kimmel said he looked at the guy and said OK, and the next thing he knew, the kid had hit him in the head so many times and so many ways that he didn’t’ see any of them coming, the kid huffing and puffing, with snot flying onto his face. Kimmel said he knew the kid was going to be good, but he had no real idea how good.
Now it’s 1996. Ali’s career of three times being heavyweight champion is over, and the world watches as the kid who could dance and rhyme declines under the awful disability of Parkinson’s.
We see him struggle to talk, even to walk, but they also see that the smile that lit your heart in 1960 still illuminates every path he walks.
One night, during the opening ceremonies for the Olympics in Atlanta, the camera flashes to the top of a high scaffold next to the base for the Olympic flame. And there stands Ali, as graceful as time allows, holding the flame that has been transported from Greece, and with all the courage and poise that carried him to greatness, he slowly, carefully and dangerously touches the flame to the wick and, as always, lights the world once more.
Tears crawl out of your eyes, the hero whose career has paralleled your growth from child to man, having climbed upon a stage far greater and more stalwart than any in his career.
The world praises his presence. The Louisville Lip just smiles and waves.