'The Greatest' got his start working at a Louisville Catholic college

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jessica Able, The Record

By Jessica Able

(CNS) — It may seem improbable that the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali, a
devout Muslim, would be closely connected with a Catholic religious order.

As a
young teen, Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, worked at the library of Nazareth
College, now-Spalding University. He cleaned and tended the front desk while
the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, founders of the school, had dinner.

would leave Central High School at 2 p.m. and work in the library until about 6
p.m. Then, he would go to the Columbia Gym and work out,” said Tori Murden
McClure, Spalding’s president and an athlete who worked with Ali in years past.

Ali, who was raised in a Christian household,
learned to box at the Columbia Gym, located in the basement of Columbia
Auditorium, which is now the Spalding University Center. He was invited by Joe
Martin, a police officer who also worked as a boxing coach. Ali met Martin when
the young teen reported his red bike stolen. He never recovered the bike, but
his fate was sealed with that encounter. The gym, where Ali first practiced his
cutting jabs and fast footwork, is still used by Spalding athletes today.

worked closely with Ali as the first development director of the Muhammad Ali
Center. And she spoke of her relationship with the world-renowned sports figure
at Spalding’s graduation June 4.

begin the commencement, McClure read a piece of poetry from the “Louisville

in college, get the knowledge, stay there until you’re through,” she read.
“If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make
something out of you.”

who was the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, said she worked
with Ali between her two attempts to cross the Atlantic.

had just failed on a worldwide stage. Muhammad Ali was one of the few people
who understood what I felt like,” she told The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Over a
period of a few months, McClure said, Ali gently prodded her, saying, “It’s
time to get up now.”

said to the students (who graduated) on Saturday, that the time between the two
rows was the darkest period in my life. Muhammad Ali reached out to me and
picked me up.

graduates do that every day,” she added. “When you do that and reach out
and pick someone up, you’re following in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali touched billions of lives. Muhammad Ali touched my life and Spalding
University touched Muhammad Ali’s life.”

noted that the Columbia Gym was integrated, a rarity in the 1950s.

South Broadway neighborhood and Nazareth were integrated as well. That didn’t
exist in many parts of Louisville,” McClure said.

self-proclaimed greatest boxer of all time died June 3 in a Scottsdale, Arizona,
hospital. He was 74.

He was
known the world over as a three-time heavyweight champion and for his unabashed

the ring, he was a champion of a different sort. His philanthropic,
humanitarian and charitable efforts were a visible and important part of his
life. Also important was his Muslim faith and his desire for interfaith
dialogue and inclusiveness.

In his early 20s, he had joined the Nation of Islam and taken the name Muhammad

In an
interview at the Ali Center June 7, Louisville Metro Mayor Greg Fischer praised
Ali as an “interfaith leader before people knew what interfaith was.”

said despite the sadness of Ali’s passing, he finds beauty in the “human
values that bind us together,” especially Ali’s six core principles — confidence,
conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.

what we should be talking about, not about building walls and hatred,” he

In Ali’s
final years, Fischer said, his life was not about the titles but about making
the world a better place.

if every athlete or person of fame just focused on the values he shared (when
he said), ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.’

if that was the dialogue. It’s within our grasp,” Fischer added.

about chance meetings with the champ and his impromptu magic shows that have
circulated around Louisville and across the world these last six days sketch a
portrait of a man who loved people — of every stripe and of every faith. These
stories depict a man who loved to delight children and adults alike — offering
tricks and sometimes a faux jab or two at a star-struck jaw.

maintained a decades-long correspondence with members of the Sisters of Charity
of Nazareth, including Sister James Ellen Huff, whom he honored with a bouquet
of roses at her funeral in 2001.

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Able is
staff writer for The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

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