LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Muhammad Ali can still draw a big crowd.
The boxing great took center stage in his hometown Saturday
night to celebrate the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center, a
six-story tribute to Ali's storied career and a legacy to his
ideals of peace and tolerance.
The Hollywood-style event, at a performing arts center next door
to the Ali Center, drew a large cast of actors, singers, athletes
and even a former president, Bill Clinton _ reflecting the champ's
Video clips showed a brash, fast-talking Ali and his epic bouts.
Another showed a trembling Ali, who is battling Parkinson's
disease, lighting the torch at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. A
parade of speakers said the three-time heavyweight champion
displayed courage outside the ring for his stance on such
fundamental issues as war, civil rights and religious expression.
"Some people are overwhelmed by their dreams, but Ali's dreams
made him bolder and stronger and fearless," said veteran
broadcaster Sir David Frost.
Frost said that Ali's response to racism "changed the way that
black people were perceived around the world. His strength and his
tenacity as a fighter captured the world's attention, but it was
his insistence on his own value that made him a hero."
Bryant Gumbel said Ali showed remarkable character for his
stance against the Vietnam War. Ali refused to serve in the
military during the war, a stand that cost him his heavyweight
title. Gumbel said "it took bravery to get into the ring and risk
his pretty face, it took real guts to step out of the ring and risk
Gumbel said Ali's "principled views" eventually won him the
admiration of those who once reviled him.
"The lesson of his life is that while our choices may sometimes
put us at odds with others, we should always be willing to exercise
our independence and never compromise our beliefs simply to curry
public favor," he said.
Another former heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, said Ali
inspired him to become a boxer.
"He meant so much for the sport and to the people," Holyfield
said before the celebration.
Singer-actor Kris Kristofferson, who sang for his longtime
friend at the celebration, was with Ali on Friday when the champ
toured exhibits showing him in his prime.
"I think he was awed by the realization of a dream,"
Kristofferson said Saturday night while making a red-carpet
entrance for the celebration. "I was so awe-struck, myself."
"To read his words that were shown throughout the center,
remind you of what a pure soul he's always been."
Across the street, about 200 admirers chanted Ali's name when
the champ arrived. Ali struck a boxing pose and waved to his fans.
Tammie Vest, 37, of Louisville, remembered her family gathering
around the television to watch Ali fights.
"He's a local hero," said Vest, who watched the arrival of
celebrities with her teenage daughter and one of her daughter's
In a scene reminiscent of the era when Ali was in his prime as a
fighter, a couple of peace activists protested the Iraq war.
"I hate boxing but I'm here for him," Carol Rawert Trainer
said of Ali.
Trainer, who grew up in the Louisville suburbs, said she once
considered Ali unpatriotic for his refusal to enter the military
during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector.
"I was against Ali then as a military person," said Trainer,
who joined the Air Force after high school in the 1960s.
She now sees Ali differently: "He was right and I was wrong to
think the way I did," she said. "He's a hero, one of the best
people in the world as far as trying to bring peace to the world."
Ali's wife, Lonnie, said in an interview Friday that her husband
hopes for a peaceful solution in Iraq. "He just wishes there could
have been an alternative way to achieve what we wanted to achieve
without going to war," she said.
She added that her husband also "abhors terrorism. The things
that are being done in the name of Islam, he abhors that because it
distorts the religion."
Ali basked in adulation for the second time this month. The
63-year-old fighter recently received the Presidential Medal of
Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, from President Bush,
who called Ali "the greatest of all time."
Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville in 1942,
learned to fight after having his bicycle stolen as a boy. He won a
gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and went on to win
the heavyweight title three times as a professional until retiring
in 1981. He changed his name after converting to Islam.
Lonnie Ali has said her husband hopes the center, an $80 million
project, will inspire visitors, especially youngsters, to reach
their potential and promote peace.