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A Pilgrimage to Muhammad Ali’s Louisville, Kentucky
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Olympic gold medalist in boxing, three-time heavyweight champion, political activist — for much of his 74 years, Muhammad Ali was among the most recognizable people on the planet.

But before he was known as “The Greatest,” Ali was Cassius Clay (his birth name) and was nicknamed “The Louisville Lip” — a nod to both his hometown and his smooth way with words. On a visit to the Southeastern city of Louisville, Kentucky, you can trace Ali’s journey from his boyhood home to his final resting place.

Spalding University

Spalding University, a private liberal arts college, was the site of two important milestones for the future Heavyweight Champion of the World. Ali’s first job was at the school, then called Nazareth College. He manned the library’s front desk and performed custodial duties. More importantly, the former Columbia Gym, now part of Spalding’s student center, is where Ali learned to box. In 1954, then 12 years old, Ali parked his new red bike outside the gym, only to have it stolen. When he reported the incident to the police officer, who also ran the gym, telling him he was going to “whup” the thief who stole it, the officer/trainer suggested that if Ali wanted to fight, he should learn to box. Shortly thereafter, Ali began training at Columbia Gym, which also hosted some of his first fights. A red bike hangs outside the building as a tribute to Ali.

Muhammad Ali Center

The Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville examines his life both in and out of the ring. Upon entering the museum, which Ali was involved in designing, the 14-minute film “If You Can Dream” summarizes Ali’s accomplishments and influence. Pavilions focus on each of The Greatest’s six core principles — confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. Afterward, you can train with Ali (and even shadowbox him) in a re-creation of his Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, training camp; watch replays of some of his most famous fights; and relive his lighting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville, Kentucky.

The Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville, Kentucky.
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Paul Joseph / Flickr

Cave Hill Cemetery

Even before Ali was laid to rest there, the 121-hectare Cave Hill Cemetery was a popular stop for travelers who wanted to walk through the arboretum-like setting, take a historical tour, or just see the grave of KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders. Keeping with Ali’s Muslim faith, his burial site, in a secluded corner of Cave Hill that he selected, is a bit more subdued — a headstone just reads: “Ali.”

Quick Jabs

Some other Ali-related sites you’ll want to visit while in Louisville: