Ali's remarkable rise to be 'The Greatest'

Louisville, Ky.

"The Champ" is making another comeback.

Not that former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali ever really vanished from the American consciousness. But the 1-2 punch of the film "Ali," which opens tomorrow, and the cementing of a deal here last week to build a $60 million Muhammad Ali Center, may help him succeed in doing what few stars of stage, screen, or sport ever have: turn mere celebrity into lasting legacy.

The Louisville slugger's 15 minutes of fame have been going on for 40 years, and once again all things are Ali. Last weekend ESPN Classic aired 24 straight hours of Ali programming. In January, CBS will broadcast a 60th birthday celebration for him featuring half of Hollywood. There's even a new line of Ali sportswear from designer FUBU.

Ali watchers are at a loss to explain how he came to transcend sports stardom and ordinary fame to become one of the most recognizable names on the planet. His rise to American icon is all the more remarkable given the depths to which he plunged.

Stripped of his title for refusing the draft, pushed to near financial ruin by a three-year ban from boxing, loathed as the boorish "Louisville Lip" in a conformist athletic age, and feared by white America as a symbol of ascendant black power, he has prevailed to become a global ambassador of goodwill - officially sanctioned by the United Nations. Hollywood also wants to use him to explain America's war effort to Muslims worldwide.

Certainly his lasting notoriety is built on a foundation of unparalleled athletic achievement in a nation that worships sports heroes with near religious fervor. In terms of youthful success, he was the Tiger Woods of his day. He won two national golden gloves championships while in high school, and then a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics three months after graduating from Central High School here. Less than two months later, he won his first professional bout.

His storybook career maintained its steep arc over the next four years as he compiled a 20-0 record as a pro. In 1964, at age 22 and a prohibitive underdog, he stunned the boxing world by defeating a befuddled Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion. Stripped of his crown when he claimed conscientious objector status, he regained it three years later, in an age when such a sabbatical was unprecedented, especially for a boxer in his prime. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named him Athlete of the Century.

Still, plenty of star athletes fade into the relative obscurity of shopping mall openings and pitchmen for local car dealers. How Ali's star has risen in the firmament says something both about him and about the culture of canonization in America.

The roots of reverence

Never one to stir ambivalence, Ali won converts and detractors with his refusal to fight in Vietnam. The stand temporarily cost him his profession, his financial stability - and if the Supreme Court hadn't ruled in his favor - his freedom. Although widely reviled at the time, his civil disobedience 30 years later has come to symbolize broader protest against the war.

"I'm 52, and for my generation his stand was a big deal," says Robert Boyle, general manager of the historic Brown hotel in Louisville, as he shows a visitor around the new Muhammad Ali suite. "When I think of Ali, I think about that even before I think about the boxer."

The former Cassius Clay was also an American original. He did things his way, a trait that often appeals to Americans and, in the case of Ali, sometimes doesn't. He thumbed his boxing glove at the government over the war, frequently defied power brokers in the Nation of Islam, and occasionally defied his own handlers.

His style was straight forward, even if bloviatingly so (recall 'I'm The Greatest"?). "One of the most remarkable things about him is that no matter what outrageousness has leaped from his mouth over the years, we realize we are seeing something fundamentally real in him and realize how rare that is among public figures," says Davis Miller, author of two books about Ali.

His life resonates with many people, too, because it embodies so many aspects of the American dream. He's a Horatio Algier in leather gloves, the son of a self-employed Louisville muralist who has garnered wealth and fame. He's the comeback kid, winning the heavyweight title three times and losing it twice. He's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, an idealist who stands up to government and eventually triumphs.

Ali's rise parallels, and in part stems from, the ascent of television. His Golden Age was also the Golden Age for network TV, a cableless time when viewers all watched the same thing - often him. His entire career is on videotape.

Trying to explain his appeal today, Ali's friends almost universally cite his humanity. "There's an aura about him," says Richard Lapchick, director emeritus of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "There's a warmth there I don't think I've ever seen in any other human being, literally holding in his arms any person who comes up to him and giving away hundreds of autographs in an age when selling them is a big business for athletes."

Michael Fox, President and CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center here, says his presence is a force no camera can fully capture. He recalls a recent trip with him to Manhattan. They stepped out of a high-rise onto a Madison Avenue sidewalk and within seconds all traffic had stopped. Taxis emptied, including their drivers. Construction workers scampered down off scaffolding. Ali was quickly surrounded by hundreds chanting his name. "It's not about the publicity, it's about the people," says Fox. "If we're in a city and we have some time between meetings, he'll say, 'let's go,' and we'll buzz over to a soup kitchen. No cameras."

The real heroes

A long-time friend, John Ramsey, recalls the time he and Ali were eating dinner in Louisville, pre-Sept. 11, during a fireman's convention. They'd yet to reach the appetizer before people were lined up at the table seeking autographs. One particularly enamored firefighter gushed that Ali was in fact The Greatest.

In his unique drawl, Ali said, "No, you're the hero - putting out fires and running into burning buildings to save babies." The fireman said, "But you stood in the ring against big George Foreman and Sonny Liston and Smokin' Joe Frazier." Ali swallowed some steak: "Yeah, but Joe wasn't really smokin'."

The movie "Ali" is getting the headlines, but ultimately it will be his career and things like the Ali Center here that will endure. Conceptually, the $60 million complex slated for the banks of the Ohio River is still a work in progress. But it is intended to be a museum and education facility aimed at promoting multiculturalism and conflict resolution.

Fox's ideal is the Holocaust Museum in Washington, which he believes has a lasting impact on almost every visitor. He wants the Ali Center to touch everyone emotionally, too - like Ali does in real life.

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