This morning, we awoke to the news that Kentucky's most beloved sports legend, boxer Muhammad Ali, had passed at the age of 74.
Muhammad Ali was a superb boxer -- an Olympic gold medalist and World Heavyweight Champion by the age of 22 -- but to so many of us here in Kentucky, he was so much more. He was a cultural icon. He was a humanitarian and a peace activist. And, as Ali himself succinctly said, he was The Greatest.
As a boxer, Ali connected with legions of fans due not only to his amazing feats in the ring (he remains the only three-time lineal World Heavyweight Champion) but also his famous brand of self-promotion. He became known as The Louisville Lip due to enduring statements like "I am the Greatest" and "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Of course, his talent in the ring backed up his statements. Ali later said, "At home, I am a nice guy, but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.” Nobody ever mistook Ali for being humble. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, he was known not only for his boxing successes and outlandish statements, but also for his political and cultural stances. His religious and social objections to the Vietnam War as well as his candor regarding race and political issues made him a counterculture icon. Ali wasn't just a boxer, he was the first true "Sports Personality", establishing the groundwork for modern sports culture. As the writer Joyce Carol Oates said in her work "On Boxing", Ali was one of the few athletes in any sport to "define the terms of his public reputation." Ali's reputation extended far beyond the realm of sports; he is a seminal figure in modern African-American culture, with popularity that has transcended racial lines for decades.
Born in the West Louisville Parkland neighborhood, Ali became a world celebrity, but remained true to his Islamic faith and his devotion to peace and social justice. His later years were spent in Arizona, but he remained devoted to his Kentucky hometown, supporting the Louisville Cardinals and establishing the Muhammad Ali Center to promote cultural and philanthropic missions.
Today, we mourn the Greatest, the Coolest, the Prettiest Kentuckian. Goodbye, Champ. You left your mark on this town.