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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 November 2005, 22:24 GMT
Home town mulls boxer Ali's legacy
By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Louisville, Kentucky

Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisiana

Were it not for the cataracts in both his eyes, Donald Hill believes that he could have emulated the success of his fellow Louisville native, Muhammad Ali.

In the 1950s, when Mr Hill was the Kentucky light heavyweight champion, he remembers a scrawny kid - a "peanut weight", as he calls him - called Cassius Clay, who used to jog in Chickasaw Park, the blacks-only park on the banks of the Ohio River.

"He used to come and take us big kids on," he says. "Even then he had that confidence."

Mr Hill has kept in touch with Ali, whom he remembers fondly, like most people in Louisville.

But like many in this traditional, southern city - which was segregated during Ali's formative years - he remains bothered by some of the more controversial aspects of the great showman's life.

"I wish he hadn't become a Muslim," he says.

"I wish he'd stayed a Christian and fought on as Cassius Clay. And he should have served the country in Vietnam. He wouldn't have had to do much, probably a few exhibition fights."

Prodigal son

His words reflect the complex relationship that Muhammad Ali has had with his home town.

Even at the height of his fame in 1978, the local council only narrowly voted in favour of naming one of the city's streets after him.

Muhammad Ali

His embrace of black consciousness through the Nation of Islam, and his refusal on religious grounds to fight in Vietnam, made him a flawed son.

But he is now a prodigal one.

Despite many offers from other cities to host a Muhammad Ali centre, the boxer decided that its location had to be in Louisville. It opened on Saturday.

Ali's old high school, Central High, is just a few blocks away from Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

The portrait of its most famous alumnus, which hangs behind glass inside the front entrance, is old and faded.

The school's deputy head, Brenda Schmidt, is fairly certain that his achievements have faded from the consciousness of the younger generation.

But she is wrong.

War

Nearly every student you speak to knows at least one of the iconic moments of Ali's life, ranging from the - as it turns out, apocryphal - story of how he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, after a whites-only restaurant refused to serve him, to his conversion to Islam.

And whereas Ali's contemporaries such as Donald Hill still find that hard to understand, today's Central High students have a different view.

Among them is Donald Hill's grandson, Chris.

"By becoming a Muslim, Ali stood up for what he believed in," he tells me. "For us, he's a black role model."

But perhaps the event in Ali's life which has made the most vivid impression on the current class of Central High is his decision not to fight in Vietnam.

With so many US troops still in Iraq, the prospect of going to war is not such a distant one for these teenagers.

When asked what they know about their hero, many begin by citing his decision to resist the draft.

"Although I don't agree with the war in Iraq," says 16-year-old Osaiah Graham Robinson, "I've always thought that if my country calls me, I would probably go and fight.

"But when I think about the different sort of courage Ali showed by refusing to go to war, I'm not so sure."


SEE ALSO:
Bush honours Ali with mock punch
10 Nov 05 |  Americas
In pictures: Sporting hero
10 Mar 04 |  In Pictures
Mandela and Ali set for ceremony
15 Jun 03 |  Northern Ireland


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