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Muhammad Ali's Louisville Roots

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, after Muhammad Ali defeated Foreman in that famous rumble in the jungle, the champ gave a shout-out to his hometown.

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MUHAMMAD ALI: I'm recognized all over the world now, but my greatness came and started in Louisville, Ky. And that's one of the greatest cities in America, Louisville, Ky.

KELLY: Ali hadn't lived there for years, but Louisville was a significant thread in his life, as Rick Howlett from member station WFPL reports.

RICK HOWLETT, BYLINE: This morning, in downtown Louisville, Mayor Greg Fischer presided over a memorial service for Muhammad Ali.

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GREG FISCHER: Today, we, as fellow Louisvillians, join the billions whose lives he touched worldwide in mourning his passing, celebrating his legacy and saying, thank you, Muhammad.

HOWLETT: The service took place just a few blocks from the educational and cultural center on the banks of the Ohio River that bears Ali's name. His wife, Lonnie, is from Louisville. They were married in 1986. In a 2005 interview, she talked about how she was drawn to Ali's charisma.

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LONNIE WILLIAMS: You know, when you see somebody like that, and you see somebody so self-assured, so worldly, so knowledgeable, who carries himself with such grace, with humor and the way he treats other people, I think Muhammad - yeah, he definitely was a big inspiration in my young life.

HOWLETT: Muhammad Ali's professional boxing career was launched with the help of a team of investors from Louisville. The businessmen introduced young Cassius Clay, as he was known, to the man who would become his longtime trainer and mentor, the late Angelo Dundee. Dundee talked about his working relationship with Ali during a visit of to Louisville.

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ANGELO DUNDEE: There'll never be another Ali, never. I'm not saying this biasedly, or being prejudiced. With Muhammad, he was very, very, very special, easiest kid I ever worked with, the easiest guy I ever trained. When we see each other, it's a hug. It's the way it should be.

HOWLETT: Angelo Dundee passed away in 2012. More of Muhammad Ali's Louisville legacy is being preserved. Ali's boyhood home in West Louisville was recently renovated and turned into a museum. It opened to the public Memorial Day weekend. It's where he lived when he was introduced to boxing by a police officer who urged him to take up the sport when Ali wanted to get even with the kid who stole his bike.

The home was purchased and renovated by two investors and Ali fans. One of them is George Bochetto, a Philadelphia attorney and former Pennsylvania boxing commissioner.

GEORGE BOCHETTO: I'd like to see people - regular people, ordinary people, people that themselves are growing up in modest circumstances understand and see what's possible. And all you need is the hard work and determination, and it can all come true.

HOWLETT: Muhammad Ali's brash persona as a boxer and his resistance to the draft during the Vietnam War rankled some people in Louisville and elsewhere. But some of that ill will has been softened in the passing years by Ali's humanitarian work and his decades-long public battle with Parkinson's disease. For NPR News, I'm Rick Howlett in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.