LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – In 1994, I was assigned to produce a ten part news series on the life and times of Muhammad Ali.
It was a mixed blessing.
WHAS-TV had archives on the boxing champion that are perhaps unmatched anywhere in the country.
But the sheer volume of material plus matching it with a timeline of Ali's life and career was a daunting task. I had ten stories to produce and less than two weeks to get it done.
Somehow during twelve hour days and with the help of editor Ted Roberts I made the deadline every night with a story at 6 and 11 p.m. The series won a regional Emmy. I won a lasting interest in a man they call, "The Greatest."
The series was to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Ali's first championship, the unlikely defeat of heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
Liston was a bear of a man, a graduate of the Missouri State Penitentiary, who had knocked out the previous champion Floyd Patterson in the first round. Liston, with his menacing scowl, seemed unbeatable.
But on February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay sliced and diced Liston's face with a snapping left jab that left the former champion unable to answer the bell in the seventh round.
Ali raced around the ring and screamed "I shocked the world. I'm the greatest."
The soon to be Muhammad Ali, had won the heavyweight championship and given himself a nickname.
And so, thirty years later, I presented Ali with a silver tray commemorating his shocking victory in Miami, as friends and family gathered in the lobby of WHAS-TV.
But this was a different Ali. The onset of symptoms from Parkinson's disease had robbed him of his signature voice and non-stop verbal antics. He could speak but only with great effort.
The now quiet Ali, who I met for the first time in 1994, had been through a lot.
The most recognized face in the world, now seemed most comfortable hugging old friends from the West End.
He had come home to a place where he was still loved by many but reviled by others. Three years after winning his first championship he was convicted of draft evasion and did not fight again for three and a half years.
His role as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War made him a hero to some, a traitor to others. But his conviction was overturned by the U. S. Supreme Court and Ali was soon back in the ring.
His boxing career would span 21 years. Some would say that was too long and the decline in his health over the past two decades would be testament that "The Greatest" took too many punches.
But his friend and sparring partner Jimmy Ellis said that he and Ali had no regrets. Both boxers suffered significant cognitive impairment late in their lives but Ellis said "they would do it all over again."
Ellis said the young Cassius Clay would visit an area gym and box everybody in the room. Sometimes he would face 10 to 15 different opponents and then walk out of the place without a scratch on his face.
I interviewed Ali's first boxing coach, former police officer Joe Martin, who taught young Clay the punch that cuts. Martin told Ali to punch like he was trying to kill a fly on the opponent's nose. Cassius would land the punch with a snapping action that could open an eyebrow or a cheek bone.
Yet this master of a violent sport was easily believable as a pacifist. He would work a room with hugs and gentle smiles. When visiting a local school Ali was liked a Pied Piper for the children.
He would charm the kids with shadow boxing and magic tricks. There was something magic about Ali and children. "The Greatest" was a child at heart, and the kids seemed to accept him as "one of them."Of course, you couldn't help but feel sorrow at the decline in Ali's health over the past several years. We knew this day of sadness was coming. But one of the greatest athletes of our time is now free of his failing body. His spirit is once again free to “Float Like a Butterfly."
And his spirit will continue to inspire Louisville, The Ali Center will assure that his memory and ideals will be carried forward in our city.
A few months ago, I interviewed a group of high school students who were part of the Muhammad Ali Center Council of Students. In a series of remarkable interviews, they expressed their desire to improve themselves and the community through the practice Ali's core principals, including respect, confidence and giving.
You see, Muhammad Ali is still "giving." Now more than 50 years after he was crowned a boxing champion, Ali remains a champion of peace and spirituality. Several years ago, after I spoke at a community event that we both attended, Muhammad Ali came up and gave me a hug of approval. It is one of my best memories.
And now, he comes home for the last time to give one "final hug" to the place where he grew up.
His spirit is floating above us and we will always remember, "The Greatest," from Louisville, Kentucky.