A Place to Learn and Give Thanks

The Muhammad Ali Center, which opened in Louisville this week, contains exhibits and films on the boxer's life and footage from each of his fights.
The Muhammad Ali Center, which opened in Louisville this week, contains exhibits and films on the boxer's life and footage from each of his fights. (By David R. Lutman -- Getty Images)
By Michael Wilbon
Friday, November 25, 2005

LOUISVILLE

I gave thanks for Muhammad Ali on Thursday, not just for him actually, but for the shrine of a center named after him that opened here in Kentucky this week and for the formal celebration of a courageous life once widely reviled. I gave thanks that Ali appeared the other night to be in better health than was recently reported, that despite the shaking brought on by Parkinson's syndrome he was capable of receiving two U.S. presidents within a week, capable of walking the 24,000 square feet of exhibits and displays that put into context not just a sporting icon but probably the most internationally famous man America has produced in a great while, and the times that fashioned him and us.

It's hard to imagine a more triumphant return home than Ali had last week. Days after being awarded this country's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Bush in Washington, D.C., some of the most famous people in the world, almost none of them athletes, turned up here to serenade Ali's life and times, and the ways he changed the world.

The group included singers Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor, Darius Rucker and Kathleen Battle; actress Angelina Jolie, who made a fairly massive donation of an artistic nature to the Ali Center; and former president Bill Clinton, who said to Ali at the end of the black-tie gala that glittered like nothing Louisville had ever seen: "The world is a better place because of you. You thrilled us as a fighter and you inspired us even more as a force for peace and reconciliation, understanding and respect. No one was ever more beautiful or brash or bright or powerful or fast in the ring. It was breathtaking."

And, of course, the totality of it is why we've been fascinated with Cassius Marcellus Clay and then Muhammad Ali for more than 40 years now. It's why folks who initially loathed Ali and would have given anything to see him get whupped, as comedian Jim Carrey admitted while introducing Ali, came to almost universally respect and then adore him over time. And it's why people will flock to the Ali Center, a big chunk of history housed in a futuristic building of six stories that has a section meant to look like the Olympic torch Ali carried to open the 1996 Olympics.

Only Ali, in all his supreme confidence, would have a museum with exhibits critical of him. Don't get me wrong, the overall tone of the center is pretty fawning, as one would expect. But in the "Respect" exhibit, a film takes Ali to task for his womanizing, for behavior most reasonable folks agree was sexist and bigoted. (You think Barry Bonds, for example, would sign off on a detailed criticism of his alleged steroid use?)

There's an exhibit that deals with Ali's conversion to Islam, his name change from Clay to Ali in 1964. The center shies away from nothing, really, which is considerable given Ali's willingness to mix it up. The room that celebrates Ali's most famous fights includes the historic loss to Joe Frazier.

There are consoles where you can view every Ali fight, any fight. But there is also a room devoted to his poetry and predictions, much of it oft-repeated but much of it also pointed and at the time offensive to people on the wrong end of Ali's youthful and sometimes nasty wit.

There are the photographic offerings of Ali's best friend Howard Bingham, which collectively ought to visit the nation's most prominent portrait gallery. And there are dozens of offerings from the iconic artist LeRoy Neiman, who in his unique ways captured so much more than the big fights we see so frequently.

There's an area designed to look like the Deer Lake, Pa., site where Ali trained for years and years.

There are panoramas, projections, educational showcases, boxing rings and interactive displays. One section of the roof is made to look like little butterflies ("Float Like a butterfly, sting like a bee . . . aaaaah ! Rumble young man rumble . . . aaaaah !"). There's a collage by children from 141 countries. In fact, when the building is finished in the coming months there will be more resources dedicated to child development, which in and of itself speaks to Ali's staying power, since nobody under 30 could possibly remember him as a boxer.

Who else has this in America?

The stated hope is that the theaters and meeting rooms in the center will be places where leaders and plain folk will attend seminars that deal with peaceful solutions and conflict resolution. It's ambitious, to say the least. But that's what we've come, over time, to expect from Ali. It's what Ali's wife, Lonnie, came to expect from her husband long before they were married. Lonnie, just last week, talked about the center being "a living, breathing center to share his ideals, to teach and inspire."

The center will have to do Ali's talking now. The thing that struck me most, from watching a young Ali spar verbally with Howard Cosell or any number of fighters, is how much I miss Ali's voice. If you're of a certain age, say, 46 or older, and have a memory that goes all the way back to the first Sonny Liston fight, you presumed that voice would live with you always.

At 63, Ali looked surprisingly slender the other night. When he was noticeably active and animated on stage, swinging and swaying with an oversized "torch" at the end of the gala, Lonnie tried unsuccessfully to get her husband to cool it, to take it easy. Of course, he wasn't heeding her advice. But the point is, given the Parkinson's syndrome, we don't know how many more glimpses we're going to have of the man.

What I wouldn't have given to hear one more riff from Ali, just one good, long paragraph on any topic he pleased. Angelo Dundee, who was in Ali's corner as his trainer the entire run, reminded me to stop fretting because, "He gets more out of a blink than others from a whole recitation."

Clinton noted that Ali has been there all his life -- Clinton's life -- and that got an "amen" from everybody of a certain age. More than any politician, more than any statesman or athlete or entertainer, Ali has been there, in noise or silence, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. And what's become even more evident than ever over the last past month, as Ali has been honored by three presidents (Jimmy Carter videotaped a tribute) and some of the most famous people on the planet, is that nobody , regardless of stature, wants to let go of Ali. And with this center bringing us 360 degrees of Ali, mortality aside, we might not have to.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company