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Neighbors Remember Champ Ali in Rhymes, Good Times


Musical artist Mark "Big Poppa” Stampley was inspired by Ali. (R. Taylor/VOA)

Musical artist Mark "Big Poppa” Stampley was inspired by Ali. (R. Taylor/VOA)

"Step up, folks, and hear the message! Somebody said God had to shut his mouth, so we could hear his heart! Hallelujah!" calls the man selling tickets to Muhammad Ali’s childhood home, which opened as a museum at the end of May.

Freshly repainted and remodeled for the public, the pink two-bedroom house on Grand Avenue here in this city's tumbledown West End has been something of a gathering place since Ali’s death Friday from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Rapper and ordained minister Chris Forehand came on his day off to pay tribute to the champ. Born and raised in Louisville, just like Ali, he grew up a couple of blocks away in the projects called Carter Homes, which he says "Bill Clinton tore down and beautified."

WATCH: Chris 'Flow' Forehand Remembers Muhammad Ali


Later, when he was famous, Ali used to come back, Forehand says. "This guy would come to your neighborhood and he would pass out Qurans and buy the kids popsicles. One time, he bought the whole popsicle truck. He bought the truck! He gave $10,000 to the ice cream man and bought his whole truck." Forehand shakes his head in admiration.

One time, the champ bought Forehand and his friend Sean some chicken wings. "I’m like, man, the greatest of all times ended up buying us some chicken wings, so it was amazing."

A 35-year rapper, Forehand, aka Chris Flo, opened for LL Cool J at one time. Now he is an ordained minister. "I was shot eight times, had an eight-pint blood transfusion, was in gangs and all that stuff, so what I had to do was change that stuff," he says, lifting two layers of shirts to display the scars on his stomach.

Ali's positive attitude was part of what led Forehand to think positively about himself. "If you want kids to stop gang violence, you got to teach them where they come from," Forehand says. His prescription: old-school rap and preaching gospel.

Forehand has four tickets to Friday’s public funeral for Ali. It will be held in the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center arena following a 90-minute procession through Ali’s Louisville, past his boyhood home here to the Cave Hill cemetery.

But Forehand also has his own tribute, his Ali rhyme: "I float like a butterfly, sting like the bee. The reason that I rhyme is because of Ali."

The neighbor

Born in the 1937 flood, Marjorie Huffman grew up in a house perpendicular to Ali’s childhood home. Hands folded, she sits on a chair outside, smiling and waving as neighbors walk by her porch.

“He would come, him and his brother, the Montgomerys that live next door, they would all come down this alley. We all played together," she recalls. They played all kinds of ball on the big lot next door to where Ali lived.

Huffman remembers Ali’s mother as a sweet person and his father painting signs. But Ali was never modest.

"Well you know what, he always said that he was going to be the champ. And be the greatest boxer. And you know how people say things when they’re children? And we laughed."

While Ali grew up to be the champ and moved away, Huffman has been in the same home for 79 years. The neighborhood has changed around her. When she and Ali were young, "you could go away, and stay two or three months, leave your doors open, and nobody would bother nothin'."

In the last 10 years, she was robbed at her home. Her porch furniture was stolen, as well as lights, plants, a decorative windmill. "Even when I take the trash out, I lock my security door to put the trash can out there, because you never know when somebody is going to come down this blind alley and do something."

Ali, she says, set an example back when they were young and will continue to do so even now, after his death.

"And these young people, they stop and think, trust in the good Lord, keep your hand in God’s hand, they can be another Muhammad Ali or whatever they want to be. And all this violence is not what it’s about. And as soon as they learn that, then things will be better."

The blues artist

"Muhammad. Muhammad Ali. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee," sings Mark "Big Poppa" Stumpley, a former Realtor turned blues artist.

A young family visits 3302 Grand Ave, in Louisville, Kentucky, the home where Muhammad Ali grew up from 1947-1961.

A young family visits 3302 Grand Ave, in Louisville, Kentucky, the home where Muhammad Ali grew up from 1947-1961.

Big Poppa is not a native of Louisville. He moved here 11 years ago from Chicago. But in Chicago, he lived just six blocks from Ali at 53rd and Woodlawn. When the daughter of Ali’s manager got married, Big Poppa met the champ. "He turned to me and he shook my hand," the old man says, adding, as he tears up, "He gave you power just by being in his presence."

WATCH: Mark 'Big Poppa' Stumpley Recalls Ali


Stumpley says Ali’s greatest achievement was his ability to create his own world. "He didn’t go out looking for a job. … He said, 'I’m going to create my world, I’m going to put this together based on who I am and what I love to do and create my life and world from that.' …That’s what it’s all about now. And it really helped me, because that’s what I do. I create my own world."

As if to demonstrate, Big Poppa sings: "He tells all the other guys, 'I’m Ali. Catch me if you can. A boom bee doom. A boom bee boom boom boom.’"

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