Muhammad Ali Blvd. a stroll down memory lane

June 23, 1999|By Gregory Kane

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- I could have been at the famous Churchill Downs racetrack -- probably this city's most famous tourist attraction -- last Saturday, but I passed. Instead I took a stroll down Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

"It's a hard ticket to get," Bob Hill, a columnist with the Louisville Courier-Journal, had assured me about getting into Churchill Downs. I didn't doubt him. But this was Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby and the Louisville Slugger Museum. This is where the most beloved Baltimore Colt of them all, John Unitas, attended college at the University of Louisville. It's also, Hill told me, the hometown of Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame shortstop Peewee Reese.

But for me, it's where Muhammad Ali was born, raised, nurtured and coddled by protective parents and received his first lessons in the pugilistic sciences. Most of the civilized world knows what happened to the youngster born Cassius Clay once he laced on the boxing gloves: national Golden Gloves and Amateur Athletic Union titles, followed by a gold medal in the Rome Olympic Games of 1960.

He won the world heavyweight championship by stopping the supposedly invincible Sonny Liston in February 1964. He won the championship a second time by knocking out the supposedly unbeatable George Foreman 10 years later and then won it a third time in 1978.

I rooted for Ali in every fight along the way. So I passed on Churchill Downs and walked along Muhammad Ali Boulevard just to say that I did it. The National Society of Newspaper Columnists had invited me to its annual conference to participate in a panel discussion. I had accepted, knowing full well the dangers: a group of columnists meeting anywhere means that no one's reputation is safe. But I couldn't pass. Not with the conference being held in the hometown of my boyhood hero.

I remember being near tears when Ali lost his first fight to Joe Frazier in 1971, enraged when he lost a decision to Ken Norton that left my hero with a broken jaw two years later. I jumped for joy when I learned he had refused induction into the Army in 1967. Call it an unpatriotic response, but it was so obvious what the Selective Service was trying to do to Ali, I couldn't have had any other reaction.

Several boxing organizations stripped Ali of his championship immediately, and Ali fans everywhere bristled. We chafed while our hero endured a 3 1/2-year exile from the ring and eagerly awaited the second coronation Ali would get when he regained the title. He failed in the 1971 fight with Frazier but got another shot against Foreman in 1974. The task seemed insurmountable. Foreman had dispatched easily -- within two rounds -- two guys who had beaten Ali: Norton and Frazier.

The experts predicted a similar fate for Ali in the fight held in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Republic of the Congo). I must admit, I fretted for a spell. That was until one day, like an epiphany, it dawned on me: There was no way Foreman could beat Ali.

Call it the faith born of blind fanaticism and excessive devotion to a sports figure. I just refused to believe what the experts said. I refused to believe that the Foreman fists that had hammered Frazier and Norton repeatedly to the canvas would do the same to Ali. It's not that Ali had never been knocked down: Three different fighters had decked him during his career. But only one time per fighter. In one round. My guy had never been down more than once in any fight in his life. And if Ali could survive Liston's barrages, I figured, he could survive Foreman's.

So fight day arrived, and I grabbed a piece of cardboard and printed Ali's name on it with a magic marker. The sign served two purposes: It would show the rest of the fans at the old Capital Centre in Landover my allegiances, and I could whack any Foreman fans across the head with it without causing them any lasting harm.

The Capital Centre crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Ali. We all seemed to have made a psychic connection and were convinced of the same thing: The experts were wrong. There was no way Foreman was going to beat Ali this night. David Frost did the commentary for the closed-circuit television broadcast. He was joined by National Football League great Jim Brown and former heavyweight champ Frazier. We didn't hear a word they said. Fans kept up a steady buzz that drowned out their voices.

Frost and company said nothing we wanted to hear. This wasn't just a heavyweight championship fight. Seven years is a long time to wait for vindication. This fight was about justice prevailing. It was about the forces of idiocy -- the ones who had tried to railroad Ali to prison for draft evasion -- finally getting their well-deserved comeuppance.

What was all the fuss about Ali? a fellow columnist from California asked. "You don't have to answer," she added quickly.

"You don't have the time," I told her. I could go on for years about what inspired me to visit Louisville on a balmy June weekend in 1999.

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