Today, Muhammad Ali's image is that of an almost saintly old warrior, the formerly great athlete with Parkinson's and a twinkle in his eye. It's good that Ali, whose financial security was by no means a sure thing after retirement, is getting his just desserts and is universally recognized as the most influential athlete in history, or as he put it, "the greatest of all time." The only problem is that today's gauzy adoration is making it harder to remember just how much Muhammad Ali once got under establishment America's skin.
Charlotte filmmaker and tele-journalist Steve Crump's new documentary, Louisville's Own Ali, which debuts on Ali's 65th birthday, Wednesday, Jan. 17, acknowledges both views of Ali -- today's gentle icon and the '60s and '70s loudmouth revolutionary. Rather than picking one or the other Ali as "real," Crump focuses on showing the city and the environment both he and Ali came from. In his loving, insightful film, he reveals Louisville as a city of contradictions -- and in the process, he shows that both sides of Ali have been part of his makeup since the beginning.
Making Louisville's Own Ali was a personal journey for Crump, allowing him to reconnect with his native city, and bringing back memories of hearing about Clay/Ali while growing up.
"A lot of the dinner table conversation in our house revolved around this guy Cassius Clay," Crump told me, "and the pride the adults had in him -- his boldness was something they'd never seen before -- all of that made a big impression."
The tale has been told a million times of how 12-year-old Cassius Clay was taken under the wing of white Louisville policeman Joe Martin, who ran a youth boxing program. Crump repeats that story, and then ups the ante by revealing that Clay got a lot of his moves and inspiration from an African-American boxing trainer named Fred Stoner, who ran a gym in a black section of the segregated city. Throughout the documentary, Crump talks to those who've known Ali the longest, including people who were there when the boxer came back from the 1960 Olympics with a gold medal, and banged on the door of Stoner's gym, bragging about his win and wanting to thank the trainer for making him what he had become.
In Ali's youth, Louisville was a typical Southern city, awash in Jim Crow, but with a lively, independent black community. Luckily for young Cassius Clay, the city also evinced an Old South form of white paternalism that combined with civic pride over his Olympic gold medal and helped launch his professional career.
Some of the city's wealthiest white businessmen formed the Louisville Sponsoring Group, which split the proceeds of Clay's fights 50-50 with the boxer. Out of their share, the LSG paid Clay's expenses as he grew into a respected pro. Interviews with former members of the LSG, particularly Gordon Davis, make clear that the group's paternalism was tempered by an obvious pride in what the Louisville boxer accomplished.
Problems came for the group, for white Louisville -- and, face it, for all of mainstream America -- when Clay took the name Muhammad Ali in 1964 after winning the heavyweight crown and joined the Nation of Islam.
By 1966, Ali had refused induction into the army and was essentially banned from boxing in the United States. His actions then, and his eventual triumphant return, made him a hero to tens of millions of Americans, including this writer. This was when Ali rose above the role of a mere prizefighter and became a hero of the era, and a symbol of the changes that were racking the country.
Ali's brashness, his embracing of Islam, and his vocal opposition to the Vietnam war outraged the American establishment, including many in his hometown of Louisville. In the documentary, Gordon Davis, of the sponsoring organization, is seen saying the group let their contract with Ali lapse in 1966 because the champ didn't need them anymore. But Ali has said it was he who ended the agreement when he hired Herbert Muhammad as his manager. Having those contradictions pointed out would have added something valuable to Louisville's Own Ali. Otherwise, Crump doesn't tiptoe around establishment Louisville's reactions to the new Ali, spotlighting the fact that when the city changed the name of Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard in 1978, it only passed by one vote. At another point, as the city is dedicating the Muhammad Ali Center, someone mentions that if you went to a VFW hall in town, you'd find most of the members opposed to it.
For someone who lived through the tumult that roiled the world during Ali's career, it can seem odd that the two Ali's -- the good-hearted, funny guy and the loud, angry spectacle -- have been reconciled in the public's mind. But then, Ali has played so many archetypal roles -- king, warrior, trickster, even fool -- what else could have happened but to make him his own cultural icon? If you want to see where the Ali phenomenon started, treat yourself to Steve Crump's new documentary.
Louisville's Own Ali will be shown on WTVI (Ch. 42, Cable Ch. 5) at these times: Wednesday, Jan. 17, 8 p.m.; Thursday, Jan. 18, 1 a.m.; Sunday, Jan. 21, 9 p.m.; Monday, Jan. 22, 4 a.m.