I was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Raised 24 miles south in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. To this day, I have family members who live in the heart of the Derby City. Outside of Kentucky and Louisville basketball, and horse racing, anyone close to the Louisville area couldn’t escape the presence of the “Champ.”
(Source: portrait photography)
Whether it was billboards, quotes, watching VHS tapes of his greatest battles in the squared circle, or adults explaining to me his importance out of the ring, “Champ” was everywhere throughout my childhood.
So after his passing late Friday, and after reading tons of articles, and re-watching YouTube videos well into the early morning Saturday, I called three people separately. All three were over the age of 50, that met him, and in their respective lives gave me insight into what “Champ” meant to them. My Mom, Dad, and my uncle Marvin:
Mom (came to Louisville in 1979):
“I was in my 30’s. I was at Nancy’s hair boutique off Naomi Drive. It was a strip mall, a grocery store, a barber shop, a wig shop. And actually you used to get your hair cut there. A bank sat on the corner. Gosh, Lilian Yarbrough was my cosmetologist at the time. I went there that particular Saturday, all the ladies were under the hair dryer, and all this commotion was going on outside. Horns sounding, people screaming. Everybody was happy. Nancy (who owned the boutique) knew him because she was known in and around the city as a business woman. I don’t know what was going on, but something was going on.
Throngs of people outside, it was about 10 AM on a Saturday morning. All these men, with these suits, and these two ladies were with him. People were coming out of the supermarket, you saw the limosesnes, women were coming out of their houses with rollers in their head. People screaming Cassius Clay! Muhammad Ali! These two ladies were with him, one caught my eye. She had a Queen Latifah, Halle berry (skin) tone.
One lady had a soft baby blue, two piece, Taylor made suit. She had on some real nice pointed toe pumps on, she just caught my eye. Shoulder length hair, pink lipstick. Fair, not light skinned, a shade darker than I am. He (Ali) came out of a car, suit coat, no tie, all kinds of body guards. He was true to form, picking up the babies, shuffling his feet, talking trash. The whole nine. It was really something to see.
He was very cordial. I told Your Dad after the fact he was a nice looking man, but when I shook his hand they were small. And I remember when he walked by, he smelled really good.”
Dad (came to Louisville 1964):
“The gym ain’t even there anymore. Hell I was young myself. I believe it was on Grant and Cecil, or on Cecil, I’m not sure. I was 18,19, might have been 20. Me and Bill Jones (friend) would go around the gym because we wanted to see the other people training. Clay was older than me, and was training. I didn’t come here till 1964, it was some years after that when I saw him. He was sparring and stuff. He looked more like a kid, had that damn lip. You could could hear him over in the next ring runnin that damn mouth. Met him. He spoke to everybody. He’d wave at you. Everybody, different age groups. That’s when I thought I could box, until a guy named Marcus Anderson made me see blue stars (laughter). I knew his daddy better than him. He was a construction painter, painting signs, houses. You know, he’s the one that painted they house pink. I knew his daddy cause I used to run around with Johnny Page (cousin of Greg Page, former heavyweight champion, also from Louisville). His momma used to have a brick house around the Buechel area.
Never did see him anywhere else.”
Uncle Marvin (came to Louisville October 22nd 1972):
“I worked at Sears for two years, and then went to overnight (trucking service, later bought by UPS).
I had to deliver freight to UofL’s campus bookstore. As I drove up to the loading dock, I noticed a crowd of people. It was by the loading area, and you knew it was him. I saw people around, and thought it was Ali.
He was with Bundini Brown. Somebody else was with him passing out Quran books. He was signing autographs (on the Quran). It’s green. I still have it and he signed it.
Just small talk, and he was cuttin up. I stayed for about ten minutes. I’ll say it was ’80 or ’79. He was so sharp, quick-witted.
I was on cloud nine. I shook his hand, hugged him. He looked lean, fit.
He was a jokester.
A experience I’ll never forget .”
Uncle Marvin: “I was scared to death. I told people this, I said man, I love Ali to death, but he’s bitten off more than he can chew. My stomach was turning, I couldn’t eat nothing.
It was about right around midnight when the fight was shown at Freedom Hall. Me, Prince, and some of the guys I went to UEI trade school with went to see it.
Foreman was pounding ’em. And I was screaming, get off the ropes! Get off the ropes! Made ’em punch his self out, and Ali went to work on ’em.
When he went down, it was loud. I ain’t ever went to a ball game that was that crowded. Shoulder to shoulder. I was so relieved.
That fight taught me a valuable lesson. Styles make fights. Ali was a thinking fighter.”
Uncle Marvin: “It hurt me to my heart to see him fight Larry Holmes. Larry Holmes himself knew he had only a shell of a man. I bet ya right now, Larry Holmes regrets it.
I knew he shouldn’t have took the fight. I almost cried. That hurt me so bad. I loved Ali just that much.
Ali shoulda retired after the second Spinks fight.
When I heard the slur in his voice. When he fought in the Norton fight, I picked up on it then, I didn’t know what it was, he was just getting older, and then it came out that he had Parkinson’s.”
Mom: “He was genuine, real human being. Even being a polarizing figure. Here was this black man, in the 60’s, who was strong in his convictions. He was controversial, but he believed what he believed.”
Uncle Marvin: “He epitomizes what a strong black role model is. I like him for his courage, what he was up against. He always trying to help folks. “
Mom: “Some white people didn’t know what to expect, and some black people were mad, because he converted to Islam, and many came from baptist church upbringings.”
Uncle Marvin: “I’ll be honest with you. If there’s a person that’s great, it’s Muhammad Ali. I think he’s the greatest ambassador for our generation. He did stuff that the president couldn’t do. He went overseas, brought peace everywhere he went. He’s the biggest figure I’ve ever known in my life. I looked up to him because I respect what he did for boxing and the whole world.”
Mom: “One word to describe him, bold.”
Uncle Marvin: “He’s an extraordinary man.
He’s the biggest figure I’ve ever met in my life. “