LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A newborn arrived on a cold Louisville day in January 1942. His parents named him Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.
“Imagine that day,” Mayor Greg Fischer marveled on Saturday. “That little boy, eyes wide open, looking up, looking around the room at the old Louisville General Hospital, not knowing the life that awaited him, the life he would make, the world he would shake up, and the people he would inspire.”
As the world mourned Muhammad Ali, his death held special meaning in his hometown, where the boxing great was the city’s favorite son.
“Muhammad Ali belongs to the world,” the mayor said at a memorial. “But he only has one hometown.”
Ali grew up in a little house on Grand Avenue in the city’s west end, Fischer recounted. He liked to eat hotdogs. When he was 12 years old, his bicycle was stolen and he told a police officer he wanted to “whoop” whoever took it. The officer told him he’d have to learn how to box first.
He grew up to be the most famous man in the world, the Louisville Lip, celebrated as much for his grace and his words as his lightning-fast feet and knockout punch. He never forgot where he came from.
Ruby Hyde arrived at the memorial service holding an old black-and-white framed photo of a young Ali. She’d been a water girl at his amateur bouts as a teenager in Louisville, and seen even then that there was something special, something cerebral, about the way he fought.
Years later, he came back to the old neighborhood as a heavyweight champion, driving a Cadillac with the top down.
“All the kids jumped in and he rode them around the block,” she remembered.
Kitt Liston’s voice trembled as she recounted how she grew up in Louisville idolizing Ali. She ran into him at a baseball game a few years ago.
“I got to tell him how much I cared about him. He put that big ol’ paw out and just shook my hand,” she said. “He had time for everybody.”
The mayor ordered the city’s flags at half-staff. A line started forming outside the Ali Center before it even opened. They were young and old, black and white, rich and poor.
Outside Metro Hall, Fischer pointed west, toward Ali’s childhood home, about three miles away in one of the city’s poorest zip codes.
“There can only be one Muhammad Ali, but his journey from Grand Avenue to global icon serves as a reminder that there are young people with the potential for greatness in the houses and neighborhoods all over our city, our nation, our world,” he said.
“There is no limit to what our kids can do if we help them realize their full human potential and there is no excuse to do anything less the our best to help them find that greatness in themselves. That’s how we become champions. Muhammad Ali has shown us the way.”