At the Newark airport, within sight of the New York City skyline, I ran across a reporter and photographer from a Norwegian newspaper. They were waiting to board the same flight as I, to Louisville, Kentucky.
Occasionally, the Kentucky Derby draws crowds and interest from around the world, but as a general rule, Norwegian journalists don’t flock to Louisville. And typically, Thursday afternoon flights from New York to Kentucky are not oversold.
But this week, journalists from everywhere imaginable are descending on the city. This week, the most famous Louisvillian and one of the most famous people in the world has passed away. Muhammad Ali.
As we sat waiting near our gate, a giant of a man approached and sat down near us. He was the kind of man whose very presence was so imposing that it caught people’s attention. He was accompanied by a friend, also a formidable man, wearing a matching hat and t-shirt bearing the slogan, “Let’s go, Champ!” There was no doubt in my mind that these men were boxers.
This was also obvious to the Norwegians who immediately engaged them in conversation. “Looks like we’re going to the same place,” the photographer said.
The huge man was Olympic silver medal winner and former undisputed heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe. His traveling companion was former WBO heavyweight champ, Shannon “The Cannon” Briggs.
The Norwegians promptly tended to their journalistic duties by getting a few quotes and photos with the boxers. I simply sat in amazement of the size difference between these people whose life stories were so different, and the idea that we had all converged at this New Jersey airport because Muhammad Ali had impacted us.
Like Ali, I was born in Louisville and grew up there. The city shaped my world view and because of him I feel like my world view was a lot different than it would have been otherwise.
He grew up in a segregated Louisville where racial inequality was painfully enforced with “whites only” restaurants and facilities.
By the time I was born, he was already 27 and world famous. Things had changed so much that as a little white boy, I grew up in the same city with an outspoken, Muslim, “draft-dodging” black man as one of my heroes.
While that was quite a transition for the city and a remarkable accomplishment for one of its black sons, we all know Louisville and America have still to this date hardly begun the journey toward true equality. What’s more, Ali never overcame the spite of detractors who couldn’t forgive his race, religion, military views, pride, or even simply his brash rhetoric in and out of the ring. However, Ali’s role in advancing the causes of equality by becoming a relatable icon and a hero to people from all faiths, colors and nationalities is now a matter of record.
After becoming an adult in Louisville, developing my own passion for the city, starting small businesses, working for the newspaper and running for office a couple times, I decided I needed a change of pace and a dose of reinvention. That brought me to my new home of Stockholm, Sweden, in 2009.
Muhammad Ali is, of course, as well known in Scandinavia as he is around the world. On the news of his death, Sweden’s largest morning newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, ran a giant photo of Ali on its front page, accompanied by 18 full pages of reports and reflections on his life. The headline read: “The light around Muhammad Ali shone stronger than around anyone else, and the flame he lit will never go out.”
It was obvious to me that I had to travel to my hometown as Ali came home for the last time. This would be something I wouldn’t forgive myself for missing.
My friends in Sweden and at the magazine company where I work were all surprised that I would travel to the other side of the planet to pay tribute to an athlete or someone I didn’t know personally.
They asked me, “You must be a really big fan, right?” Well, yes, but in Louisville being a big fan of Muhammad Ali isn’t something unusual. Almost everyone in Louisville is a big fan. I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent person in Sweden – or in most places – whose life so embodied the people and the place itself.
I was a little boy in 1981 when I first saw Muhammad Ali in person. For just a minute during the Kentucky Derby Festival’s annual Pegasus Parade, I saw him ride by, waving to the people lined up along Broadway in downtown Louisville. He was exuberant, standing up through the sunroof of the car, smiling ear to ear, and beaming in the joy and adulation of his hometown fans.
I snapped a photo with my small Kodak camera as he passed by. The framing of this photograph – which nearly misses Ali completely – betrays my own excitement as an 11-year-old photographer.
Now, 35 years later, I am seeing his hearse take him the opposite direction down Broadway, with the destination being Cave Hill Cemetery. The crowds have swelled larger in size, as has their love for their champion.
The streets are overflowing with people of all ages and backgrounds. The funeral procession moves along at a snail’s pace as people pack the streets and flowers rain in from all directions, landing on the hearse.
Fifteen years after the young version of me took a photo at a parade, I saw Ali in person again as I attended the Louisville premiere of the documentary film When We Were Kings. Like most things Ali, you needn’t be a sports fan to enjoy it. This stunning Oscar-winning film, an eyewitness account of Ali’s 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with George Foreman, is a must-see for fans of the art of documentary storytelling.
The premiere was held at Baxter Avenue Filmworks, a cinema complex where every screen in the house had been commandeered for the evening to show the film to thousands of Louisvillians at once.
The Greatest himself was in attendance with his wife Lonnie and they took the time to stop into all eight auditoriums to greet the crowds and to thank everyone for coming. The audiences were beyond enthusiastic, giving standing ovations as the couple entered and swarming around them as they exited.
One of the few things I regret in my life is that I didn’t walk the 15 or 20 feet to the end of my row to touch Ali’s hand or shoulder as he slowly shuffled up the aisle surrounded by fans and admirers. I didn’t want to be part of the mayhem and I felt it a sufficient honor just to be invited to the premiere and to be in the same room as he and Lonnie graciously welcomed everyone.
As I have been recalling a life dotted by a handful of brushes with Ali, I seem to have mis-remembered one, or perhaps even created it as a composite in my memory, based on other stories I heard over the years.
I was certain that Ali had visited my elementary school when I was a boy. However, in the process of searching for a photograph of this momentous occasion – digging in my own photo albums, going as far as contacting the librarian at the school I attended four decades ago, and hearing the results of her appeal to alumni for help in locating something – no one seems to remember this day except me. The mind can be an odd conglomeration of connections sometimes.
As I remembered it, the People’s Champ came to the school to meet and talk with the children. His affection for kids was one of his most endearing traits. Ali loved joking around with kids, doing magic tricks and telling tales, both tall and true, but always entertaining.
He was infamous for levitating, a great trick in which both of his feet appeared to rise off the floor while he balanced his weight onto his heel which was hidden from view by the angle he stood. This performance made kids lose their minds!
It’s possible that my “memory” came from seeing so many films of Ali surrounded by kids, photos of him visiting other Louisville schools, or perhaps even hearing firsthand stories from my friends who went to different schools.
So while it seems I never saw him at my elementary school, I do feel lucky to have at least seen him a couple times in our beautiful hometown.
Street vendors sell commemorative shirts.
Hospital workers wait along the procession route during their lunch break.
People wait near the end of the route as the procession is overwhelmed by well-wishers throughout the city.
Observers talk as the procession is delayed.
Spectators stretch to get a better view as the procession approaches.
Locals and travelers camped out overnight for free tickets to the memorial service which were limited.
Members of the Louisville Police Department were spread throughout the city to help visitors and traffic.
Protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church do their best to ruin even the most beautiful of events.
Louisville’s downtown basketball arena hosted the memorial service.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown reflect near the memorial service.
Many Louisvillians gathered at each other’s homes to watch the procession and memorial.
Fans outside the memorial service.
After the funeral procession wound its way through the city along a route that passed his childhood home and the neighborhood of his alma mater Central High School, a memorial service was held at Louisville’s embarrassingly-named downtown basketball arena, the KFC Yum! Center.
Speakers included White House special adviser Valerie Jarrett who read a statement from President Obama, two rabbis, a monsignor, two Native American chiefs, a pastor, and friends of Ali including Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, comedian Billy Crystal, former president Bill Clinton and Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X.
I should say, as a side note, that if there are more than 15 or 20 people present, holding a moment of silence in Louisville is often a fool’s errand. Louisville is a lively city, to put it lightly. Crowds of Louisvillians like to make make noise, cheer and make each other laugh. And they don’t have respect for much of anything.
However, on this moment, with around 20,000 in attendance, this particular span of minutes was more respectful and silent than one could possibly imagine. Not a ringtone, not the sound of a baby, not a single sound other than the arena’s air conditioning system could be heard.
Near the end of the long day of events celebrating Ali’s life, I met my parents and brother and sister for a big meal of sloppy Mexican food and margaritas. Everyone in Louisville has a favorite story about Ali, and we sat around this big table talking about him and the day’s events.
My mother began telling a story about why she’ll never forget Ali’s second fight against the legendary Sonny Liston.
Theories abound about this fight. Was it fixed by the Mafia or the Nation of Islam? Did Liston take a dive? Did Ali’s “anchor punch” deliver such a blow that Liston simply couldn’t regain his balance?
The one indisputable fact about the fight is that it was short.
The bout, which took place in Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965, was simulcast live via closed-circuit television to a number of venues around the country. This was before cable TV, so in order to see such an event, one had to buy a ticket to an arena or auditorium where the live feed would be projected onto a large screen.
My parents met in the ’60s when they were working across the hall from each other at the Blue Cross insurance company. A number of their colleagues at the company were excited to have gotten tickets to see the closed-circuit television simulcast.
“All the maintenance men at Blue Cross, when we worked there, they had [tickets to the] pay-per-view out at Freedom Hall,” she said. “So they talked about it all week long, how they were going to go out there and watch this fight!”
In those days, spectators could bring their own food and drinks to the arena.
“They had all their coolers ready with beer and everything… [laughter] They went out there, got seated and everything. The fight started, and one of the guys bent down to get his beer, and when he came back up the fight was over! [laughter]”
Liston had gone down at one minute and 44 seconds into the first round.
“It was so funny! They came back to work and we had the biggest time with them!” Then my dad chimes in, “We kept asking them how the fight went!” My mom laughs, “Everyone was asking them, ‘How was the fight? How was the fight?’ just to egg them on. [laughter] But they were so disappointed.”
I talked to a lot of people over the weekend in Louisville who weren’t huge boxing fans, but all had great stories to tell. There’s no shortage of those who loved Ali’s hilarious rhymes and orations, long before rap and hip hop had names. There’s no shortage of people he helped feel proud and unapologetic for who they were or where they came from.
And that’s one of the things that made Ali so great. You didn’t have to be a boxing fan to enjoy him. He was above all else an entertainer. Both in and out of the ring, it was his personality that you couldn’t take your eyes away from.
A lot of people brag about how great they are, and many come off as conceited or arrogant, but with Ali, he did it with such warmth and a smile and a twinkle in his eye. It was so welcoming and it made you feel like you were a part of the celebration. He wasn’t just bragging about how great he was, he was inviting everyone who wanted to come along to be a part of the fun.
Much of the day felt more like a celebration than a funeral or memorial. People loved this man. People still love him. He’s the Greatest.