Ali's Journey from Fighter to Peacemaker

The Muhammad Ali Center opens to the public Monday in Louisville, Ky. Commentator Betty Baye reflects on how the boxing great has gone from a fighter with a fiery reputation to a globally recognized messenger of peace. Note: This story contains sensitive language.

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ED GORDON, host:

The Muhammad Ali Center opens to the public today in Louisville, Kentucky. The $80 million structure commemorates the life and ideals of the fabled boxer. Commentator Betty Baye has witnessed Ali go from a brash, self-assured fighter to a globally recognized messenger of peace. She recalls sitting next to the radio in her parents' bedroom listening to the young boxer fight Sonny Liston in the World Heavyweight Championship of 1964.

BETTY BAYE:

Muhammad Ali really had to grow on my dad. It's not that Daddy had special affection for Sonny Liston. I mean, actually there wasn't a lot to love about the glowering gladiator who got whipped by the brash, young boxer out of Louisville, Kentucky. What Daddy couldn't abide about the man-child known as Cassius Clay was all of his trash-talking. `Just fight the man, only don't keep running your mouth while you're doing it!' Daddy would say. Of course, young Cassius wasn't called the Louisville Lip for nothing. And by the time he got to bragging that he was the greatest of all time, nobody, not even my daddy, could disagree.

Dad's been gone for 23 years, and the handsome trash-talker is today a 63-year-old who has nearly been silenced by a long battle with Parkinson's disease. At the White House a few weeks ago, President Bush awarded Muhammad Ali the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest honor. Who would have thought? Is this not the same Muhammad Ali whose conversion to Islam, whose name change, whose embrace of the feared Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, whose opposition to the Vietnam War, whose refusal to be inducted into the military ignited a firestorm of criticism? Earned him, in fact, the eternal hatred of people who believe that it's un-American, indeed unpatriotic, not to be drafted into a war that one's conscience tells him or her is immoral and unjust and to fight people, who, as Muhammad Ali once famously said, `never called me "nigger."'

But stripped of his heavyweight title, banned from boxing in his prime, losing million-dollar paydays, the Louisville Lip never backed down. And that to many makes Muhammad Ali a VPM, a very principled man. And that's why on last Saturday, Muhammad Ali one more time put the world's spotlight on Louisville. As in the old days when my family used to listen to Ali's fights on the radio, the stars were ringside, only on this occasion to help dedicate the $54 million Muhammad Ali Center on Louisville's waterfront. The Ali Center is partly an interactive museum. It's also devoted to peace and to reconciliation between members of the world family, regardless of race, religion or creed. And it seeks to achieve those ends by emphasizing the six themes that have guided Muhammad Ali's life from his days as a young boxer until now: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and spirituality.

GORDON: Betty Baye is a columnist for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.

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