Say “Kentucky” and a couple of things leap to mind: the Kentucky Derby, bluegrass music and bourbon, of course. Dig deeper and you’ll find the state known as “the most northerly of the southern states and the most southerly of the northern states” offers so much more.
By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones
Beautiful Louisville, the state’s largest city, is home to the Muhammad Ali Center. Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali made his mark in the professional boxing ring as the motor mouth World Heavyweight Champion who changed his name from Cassius Clay, defected from the Christianity of his youth to Islam, and refused to be drafted to serve in Vietnam. You might remember his verbal barrages mostly about how beautiful he was and how no one could beat him. You might have found all that a little hard to take. The “sweet science” – as boxing is called – does not enjoy universal appeal.
But touring the Muhammad Ali Center and reflecting on the man’s career and personal philosophy in the context of his times, you could be in for a surprise. You might come away realizing that Ali was fighting more than the other guy in the ring. He was fighting a deeply entrenched racism that taught him, and millions with his skin colour, that white was preferred and black was not and that he could never achieve anything of significance.
The surprisingly spiritual Muhammad Ali Center tells the story of a life where the boxing career was merely the vehicle that carried the man into the history of human rights. Six core principles (confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality) were Ali’s compass through a turbulent career that saw him achieve the highest honours in his sport only to have it stripped by a hostile establishment. In a sense, Ali committed the gravest sin of all: he insisted that his society live up to its own principles.
The Center’s focus is on global ideas, on his philosophy, his approach to life and his humanitarian outreach as an ambassador of peace, of social justice and of spiritual growth. Many of the displays are interactive: Muhammad Ali became popular as television was coming of age, so much of the man’s history revolves around the media, including both his sports and humanitarian works.
Give yourself a lot of time and be prepared to do a lot of reading and reflecting. Odds are you won’t come away unchanged.
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