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The Nation

'Greatest of All Time' Honored in Hometown

November 20, 2005|From Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Boxing great Muhammad Ali 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 humanitarian ideals of peace and tolerance.

The star-studded event, at a performing arts center next door to the Ali Center, drew a large cast of actors, singers, athletes and even President Clinton -- reflecting the champ's star appeal.

Another ex-heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, said Ali had inspired him to box.

"He meant so much for the sport and to the people," Holyfield said.

Singer-actor Kris Kristofferson 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. "I was so awestruck myself.

"To read his words that were shown throughout the center [reminds] you of what a pure soul he's always been," said Kristofferson, who has known Ali for about 30 years.

Across the street, about 200 Ali admirers waited, hoping for a peek at Ali and other celebrities.

Tammie Vest, 37, of Louisville remembered her family gathering around the television to watch Ali fight.

"He's a local hero," said Vest, who watched the arrival of celebrities with her teenage daughter and a friend of her daughter.

In a scene reminiscent of the era when Ali was in top form as a fighter, a couple of peace activists protested the Iraq war.

"I hate boxing but I'm here for him," Carol Rawert Trainer said of Ali.

Trainer, who grew up in the Louisville suburbs, said she once considered Ali unpatriotic for his refusal to enter the military during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, a stand that cost him his heavyweight crown. "I was against Ali then as a military person," said Trainer, who joined the Air Force after high school in the 1960s.

She now sees Ali differently: "He was right and I was wrong to think the way I did," she said. "He's a hero, one of the best people in the world as far as trying to bring peace to the world."

Ali basked in adulation for the second time this month. The 63-year-old 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 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, retiring in 1981. He changed his name after converting to Islam.

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

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