By Bruce Schreiner
ABOVE PHOTO: Bakcground, Ali stands over Sonny Liston in the infamous one-round rematch on May 25, 1965,in Lewiston, Maine and the foregound photo is a recent AP photo.
LOUISVILLE, KY. — Long before his dazzling footwork and punching prowess made him a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion known as Muhammad Ali, a young Cassius Clay honed his skills by sparring with neighborhood friends and running alongside the bus on the way to school.
The man who became the world’s most recognizable athlete was a baby sitter, a jokester and a dreamer in the predominantly black West End neighborhood of Louisville where he grew up and forged lasting friendships while beginning his ascent toward greatness.
Now, as the iconic boxer slowed by Parkinson’s disease prepares to turn 70 next week, he’s coming home for a birthday bash at the downtown cultural center and museum that bears his name. The private party Saturday night will double as a fundraiser for the 6-year-old Muhammad Ali Center, which promotes ideals of tolerance, respect and individual achievement. The birthday party will highlight a weeklong extended tribute to the city’s favorite son whose name and face emblazon buildings and street signs.
Ali turns 70 on Jan. 17, three days after the party.
Those who knew him before he developed his famous ringside persona — the brash predictions followed by rapid-fire punches that backed up his taunts — remember a happy-go-lucky kid with a ready smile who had a serious side, aspiring to show his mettle as a fighter.
Ali’s boyhood neighbor, Lawrence Montgomery Sr., 78, was one of the first to feel the sting of the young boxer’s jabs. At the teenage boy’s request, Montgomery held up his hands and Ali popped them with punch after punch.
Montgomery saw early glimpses of the boxing legend’s bravado that earned him the “Louisville Lip” nickname.
“He told me then that he was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world, and I didn’t believe him,” Montgomery told The Associated Press. “I told him, ‘Man, you better get that out of your mind.’ But he succeeded. He followed through.”
Early on, Ali’s neighbors and classmates saw the work ethic that enabled him to defeat the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston in epic bouts that sealed his reputation as an all-time great.
Instead of riding a bus to school, Ali raced it in early-morning workouts that stretched for miles.
“He would jog and of course we’d pass him up,” said Shirlee Smith, 69, who graduated with Ali from Louisville Central High School in 1960. “Then we’d stop at every corner to pick somebody up and he’d pass us up. And he’d laugh and wave at us all the way to school.”
Ali and the bus usually arrived at school about the same time, she said, but Ali never seemed winded.
“It didn’t faze him in the least,” Smith said.
Some early mornings, when Montgomery arrived home from his overnight shift at the postal service, he would see Ali running in heavy boots toward a neighborhood park and back — a 5-mile roundtrip.
Ali’s introduction to boxing was spurred by a theft.
His new bicycle was stolen when Ali was 12. He rode the bike to a community event to get free popcorn and candy. When it was time to go home, the bike was gone. Wanting to report the crime, the shaken boy was introduced to Joe Martin, a police officer who doubled as a boxing coach at a local gym. Ali told Martin he wanted to whip the culprit. The thief was never found, nor was the bike, but soon the feisty Ali was a regular in Martin’s gym.
Victor Bender was an aspiring boxer when he and Ali began a lasting friendship when both were 12. The two became sparring partners as Ali slowly began turning his raw natural abilities into boxing skills.
“He was developing punches back then,” Bender said.
While Bender shifted his attention to basketball and football, becoming a standout at Central High, Ali developed into a top amateur boxer, winning two national Golden Gloves championships by the age of 18.
Even in his early days, friends say, the gangly Ali aspired to become a heavyweight. The summer after graduating from high school, Ali won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Away from the gym and ring, though, Ali was known for his fun-loving side and loyalty as a friend.
Smith recalls times when Ali opened doors to a courtyard to let the cold air in while classmates stood in a hallway during lunch break.
“We’d just stand there and freeze and he’d just laugh,” she said. “He thought it was funny. He was just a jokester.”
Unlike the brash boxer whose face become a fixture on television years later, Ali was a bit shy in school, Smith said.
“He wasn’t a lady’s man,” she recalled.
Ali’s self-confidence soared as his career took off, but much of the brashness was aimed at garnering attention, said Gordon Davidson, the attorney for the group of Louisville businessmen who sponsored Ali in the early years of his professional career.
“As far as this “I’m The Greatest,’ all of that was what I’ll call sideshow,” he said. “He could turn it on and turn it off when he wanted to.”
Montgomery’s daughter, Karen Montgomery Williams, 56, remembers Ali as her first baby sitter. The easygoing teenager would turn serious during those Saturday night babysitting sessions when a local boxing show came on television, she said.
“I just remember having to sit down and be quiet,” she recalled.
Montgomery’s father said Ali refused to charge him for babysitting his children.
“The only thing he’d require was having bologna sandwiches in our refrigerator,” he said.
Ali moved to Miami in the early 1960s, but he never forgot his Louisville roots. He would return to the neighborhood, smartly dressed and driving a Cadillac convertible, Montgomery said. In later years, Ali would entertain local children with magic tricks, a favorite pastime.
Ali’s boyhood home — a small, single-story frame house — still stands in the working-class neighborhood. In the front yard there once grew a tree that Ali used to spar with as a boy. Now only a stump remains.
Ali and his wife, Lonnie, now have homes in Michigan, Arizona and Louisville.
His boyhood friends stuck with Ali, who was raised as a Baptist, after he converted to the Muslim faith, changed his name and refused to be drafted for military service during the Vietnam War. Those decisions alienated him from many in America during those turbulent times. Ali was stripped of his heavyweight crown in 1967 for refusing to fight in the war.
Bender was drafted into the Army at the same time as Ali.
“At the time, I kind of believed like he did, but I didn’t fight it,” Bender said. “I went on and did my time. And if he had gone in, he would have been successful with his time, too.”
Bender, who is a Baptist, said he respects Ali’s faithfulness to his adopted religion: “He’s been a very spiritual individual who you would love having as a friend who you could count on being in your corner.”
Davidson, a confidant to Ali during those years, warned the champ that skipping the draft would badly damage his career. Ali listened respectfully but wouldn’t budge.
“He said he appreciated that but his religion was more important to him,” Davidson said.
Montgomery said Ali has always been admired in the neighborhood for sticking to his principles.
“He was a role model for all of us in the neighborhood,” he said.