'He was this city's hero': Louisville remembers Muhammad Ali

By Steve Almasy CNN

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (CNN) -- Before Muhammad Ali became a hero to the world, he was a son of Louisville.

People in this northern Kentucky city revere him, and on Wednesday, folks here celebrated his life and shared stories about meeting the three-time heavyweight champion.

At a downtown festival called "I Am Ali," almost everyone seemed to have met the legendary boxer or knew someone who did. They talked of Ali as someone who made them proud to be from Louisville and inspired them to be better people.

Some came with friends, some with family. Some wanted to show their kin the impact that Ali, who died Friday at 74, had on the world. Others just wanted to pay their respects.

People brought flowers and photos to a memorial at the Muhammad Ali Center and left tributes on a wall at the the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts. Hundreds of children watched videos of the champ's classic fights or listened to people like Jole Burghy talk about how her grandfather, Joe Martin, taught a young Cassius Clay to box.

The event kicked off three days of Louisville tributes to Ali, which culminate Friday in a memorial service and funeral procession through the streets (see map above).

Louisvillians shared with CNN their memories about the man who was born Cassius Clay and nicknamed "The Louisville Lip" before converting to Islam, changing his name and becoming a global icon.

Ondraus Cissell, 52

"I grew up 2½ blocks from the Clay home in the West End. He went to high school with my mother. The only time I got to see him in person, he won his second title in 1974. I was going to Carter Elementary. He drove around town in a white convertible Cadillac and he was on the back with his hands in the air. And they let us out of school to see him and it was awesome. I was about 6 feet away from him. It was everything. He was a part of this town; he was a part of this neighborhood.

"Obviously he had a great personality, but he was kind to everybody.

"He was from Parkland, a part of the West End. The cliche is true about the old neighborhood: Everybody's mom, everybody's grandmom and dad and auntie, they were looking out for everybody's kid. That's what made him what he is."

Jeffrey Mitchell, 50; Corneilus Williams, 30

Mitchell: "He gave me the greatest gift. He opened up doors that we wouldn't have been able to go through. He let you know to stand for the things you believe in in life. You just can't fall for anybody.

"He was the greatest. He was the most recognizable face in the world, regardless of sports. All over the world he was known, so that meant a lot to the city."

Williams: "He was a person who touched a lot of people. It was what he spoke about, how he spoke. This is a very historical moment for the African-American community, and for the community as a whole. He meant a great deal for the city. He was our ambassador and our idol. This city really loves him and we all feel like we are a part of his family."

Ayah Kutmah, 18

"As an American, as a African-American, as a Muslim, he really inspired me to fight and to stand for what was right and what was strong. Hearing that he died was awful, it was one of the worst things, because we lost a hero. But at the same time we know that now he rests in heaven.

"This was his home, and even though there may have been times when people might not have been the kindest to him here, he still went back to his roots and appreciated his hometown.

"I saw him once at a gala for the Kentucky Refugee Ministries. It was a couple of years ago. Even though you saw him wearing sunglasses and in a wheelchair, you could see he still had the energy to fight, to go to these events and to work for humanitarian causes.

"He was a hero for all Muslims all around the world. You saw him as a symbol against oppression, against Islamophobia, against people who tried to put him into a small sphere. He was like, 'These are my beliefs, you can take it or you can leave it.' That really inspired us to take a stand. To not hide when times get tough. To show people we shouldn't be ignored."

Myrna Brame, 66

"I got to meet him (once) and he would shake your hand and say, 'Glad to see you, thank you for coming out and supporting me.' It made me feel unbelievable because most celebrities don't want you around and try to shoo you away. But Ali was never like that. It was like he knew everybody. He would say, 'I'm sure there's someone in your family I know.' And then when I would tell him he would say, 'Yeah, I know them. I went to school with them.'

"He was a hometown person who made good -- not just nationally but worldwide. That's awesome. Just to think a person from Louisville, Kentucky, touched so many lives."

Jim Hill

"I moved here about the same time he started boxing. He was amazing, brash and he was fun. I loved watching him on TV locally. He was just tearing everybody up.

"He became the most iconic person. He's an inspiration to kids, black and white, and to all Louisvillians. He wasn't completely without problems, but he was bigger than we ever thought possible. I tell people that he is worthy of this amount of attention, and very few people are.

"This city is proud of him. He rose up from humble beginnings and did what a lot of people would like to do but never get there. They never get close."

"I met him several times, once at the mall. We made eye contact as he handed me a verse from the Quran. When Ali looked at you there was definitely something electric."

William E. Johnson Sr., 62

"I have three brothers who were professional fighters, so we go back a long way. My favorite memory of Ali was the second and third fights with (Joe) Frazier.

"He showed us his determination with his comeback after he spent 3½ years away from the ring. (Ali was convicted of evading the draft in 1967 and stripped of his boxing titles.) He showed his dedication.

"He had great family guidance. He had a sense of confidence, a sense of belief, a sense of integrity. As a boxer myself, I tried to follow his example. He inspired me, but not just in the ring."

Jennifer Bohr, 46

"This is our first year in Louisville. We're from eastern Kentucky. His impact was huge. It's really impressive that he had this big an impact on people. It's humbling to see all the tributes.

"I grew up with Muhammad Ali. I thought it would be good to enrich my daughters and show them a man who left such a big impact on the world. And to show them that like him, they can do anything they want to do. I want them to see how he started from very humble beginnings and worked very hard to be who he was.

"His fight with Parkinson's (disease) was what touched me the most," added Bohr, who said her father has Parkinson's. "And the way he was with the children."

Ronald Miller, 60

"He meant a lot to me through my father. My father carried me to one of his fights when I was about 6 years old, and I looked at the way my father looked as he watched Ali. And believe it or not, he became a better father. We had a chance to go in the back, after the fight at Louisville Gardens, to see Ali. My father held me up and Ali laid a glove on my head.

"He's been such an inspiration to me my whole life. All the things he stood for -- as a civil rights leader, as a spiritual man. I feel like there is a piece of Ali in me. All of the principles, and what he stood for. I am Ali, and Ali means peace.

"We feel like Muhammad Ali is the teacher of Louisville, the fighter for Louisville and the king of Louisville. He's been a blessing to so many people."

Elisa Duvall, 52

"He was a positive influence on the kids and he did a lot for the community. He loved where he was from. He meant everything to Louisville.

"Everybody loved Muhammad Ali. He fought for his beliefs.

"I saw Muhammad Ali in a restaurant (not many years ago, when his health was declining). He couldn't talk, but he always had that smile."

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