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Muhammad Ali Center Celebrates the Man and his Message


A new facility celebrating the life of former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali has opened to the public. At the champ's insistence, the museum and educational center were built in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, in the eastern United States.

Visitors to the Muhammad Ali Center along the Ohio River will find that the facility is still a work in progress. While the center's exhibit areas have opened to the public, work continues on the building's administrative areas and exterior. Completion is expected by spring, 2006.

It was boxing that made Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, one of the world's most recognized figures. There's plenty of boxing memorabilia in the Ali Center, but everyone associated with it is quick to say that it's not a shrine to the sport or to the man. "We realized if we were going to pursue this seriously, that it had to be something that spoke to the man in whole, that it had to be something that contributed to society, to others," says Lonnie Ali, his wife of 19 years. "It couldn't be just about Muhammad, because we never wanted that. We didn't want anything to idolize Muhammad. I mean, what does that do for anybody? Nothing." Lonnie Ali is her husband's caretaker and spokesperson, since the 63-year old champ has battled Parkinson's disease for more than two decades, and therefore rarely speaks in public.

In addition to the exhibits celebrating Muhammad Ali's boxing career and the significant events in his life, there are six pavilions. Center President Michael Fox explains that each represents what Ali calls his core values: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and spirituality. "That's the foundation of this institution. There is not another institution on the face of this earth that has that as its underpinning. That is what all of our programming hereafter will evolve from. These six values."

The opening of the Center was marked with a series of late November events, including a celebrity gala and fundraiser attended by notables from the worlds of sports, entertainment and politics. Former President Bill Clinton told the cheering crowd the world is a better place because of Muhammad Ali. "You thrilled us as a fighter and you inspire us even more as a force for peace, reconciliation, understanding and respect. Now you've got this center, which will enshrine both your thrills and your inspiration and inspire others to follow your lead."

Visitors to the Muhammad Ali Center will see and hear details related to two major events in Ali's life that, at the time, drew scorn from much of the American public. One was his conversion to Islam in 1964, which prompted his name change. The other came two years later, when he refused, on religious grounds, to be drafted into military service for the Vietnam War. As the legal battle that resulted from his draft resistance made its way through the courts, Ali would be barred from boxing professionally for three years, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

Longtime boxing promoter Bob Arum points out that Ali's refusal to join the service predated the American anti-war movement. "People don't remember that this, that the war in Vietnam was not an unpopular war when it started. It became horribly unpopular. He was considered to be a traitor to his country and he had the courage to stand up to everybody, friends and foe, and to say that what he was doing was the right thing."

It was that event that raised Ali's profile from a pugilist to a peace advocate. "He really woke us up, you know," says his friend, musician James Taylor. "He helped Americans wake up by associating with his process, we came to know so much more about ourselves, about injustice… just because of the magnetism of his personality and his persona, he captured us all and we felt what he felt, you know it was, he was an amazing communicator of his personal experience to so many people...he's just an astounding character in our cultural history and on the world stage."

As one of the most colorful sports figures in the 1960s and 70s, Muhammad Ali inspired young people around the world. That part of his legacy is showcased in a large mosaic wall, made up of five thousand small wood tiles. Children from 144 nations created the images reflecting their hopes and dreams.

In addition to the many exhibits in the center's 8,600-square-meter interior, there are classrooms for community outreach programs. These include a conflict resolution curriculum for children created with the help of the United Nations, and a variety of self-improvement courses for all ages.

The Ali Center's president, Michael Fox, says that like the great athlete it honors, the new facility puts great emphasis on the power of personal development. "We encourage and will work with our visitor public and our participants in our programming to have them think much more about their personal values, much more about their personal development. We often say, "The Muhammad Ali Center is about Ali and it's about me." All of us, individually."