Exhibit chronicles public mourning over Muhammad Ali in his Kentucky hometown

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Like his lightning-quick jabs, word of Muhammad Ali’s death spread swiftly around the globe. An outpouring of emotions flowed to his beloved Kentucky hometown.

For one remarkable week in June 2016, Louisville was the focus of ceremonies honoring the three-time heavyweight boxing champion and humanitarian known as The Greatest.

Eight years later, the Muhammad Ali Center has opened an exhibit chronicling those heart-pounding days. It includes photos, a three-dimensional display and a video documenting the events and emotions.

Putting it together was bittersweet but important, said curator Bess Goldy.

“We haven’t acknowledged Muhammad’s passing in our exhibits yet and we felt that was a really vital story to tell as a part of his story and a part of his legacy,” she said before the opening.

Visitors will first see an acrylic panel surrounded by more than 1,000 silk roses — symbolizing the flowers that admirers tossed onto the hearse as Ali’s funeral procession made its way to Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, said Goldy, the Ali Center’s senior manager of curation and collections. An inscription on the panel recounting those days says Ali’s passing “sent ripples across continents, transcending borders and cultural divides.”

There’s a striking black-and-white photo of Ali, taken in the 1990s. Ali’s own words are displayed, including his comments that he would like to be remembered “as a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him.” A video shows footage of news reports about his death at age 74 as well as from his memorial service. Photos capture the enormity of the crowds that paid their respects. One taken in the days after Ali’s death shows a marquee honoring him at Madison Square Garden in New York, where Ali had his historic first fight with Joe Frazier.

Ali’s wife, Lonnie Ali, said Louisville was “the perfect host to the world that week.”

“From the moment the plane touched down in Louisville, marking Muhammad’s final return home, the entire city of Louisville wrapped their arms around us with love and support,” she said in a statement.

Within hours of his death, makeshift memorials formed at his boyhood home and the downtown cultural center bearing his name. Mourners thronged to Louisville. An estimated 100,000 people lined the streets as the funeral procession passed days later, with chants of “Ali, Ali” ringing out. A star-studded memorial service followed his burial. Comedian Billy Crystal eulogized Ali as a “tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty.”

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg remembers the celebration of Ali’s life as “one of the most powerful, impactful and culturally significant events” to ever take place in the city.

“Those who took part in the celebration will remember it forever,” he said in a statement.

Greenberg, who was a prominent local businessman at the time, said people can now relive those days — or experience it for the first time — through the exhibit.

The Ali Center, situated near the banks of the Ohio River, features exhibits paying tribute to Ali’s immense boxing skills. But its main mission, it says, is to preserve his humanitarian legacy and promote his six core principles: spirituality, giving, conviction, confidence, respect and dedication.

The new exhibit, titled The Greatest Remembered, will be a permanent one, with plans to keep it fresh by rotating in new items to display, Goldy said.

As the exhibit was going up, Keith Paulk was nearby watching a replay of Ali’s fight with Leon Spinks when Ali won the heavyweight title for the third time. The Florida man was on his way with a friend to watch the eclipse in New York state. His stop at the Ali Center was like a pilgrimage to honor Ali.

“Man, he was a hero if there’s ever been one,” Paulk said.

Paulk, 73, said he watched the memorial service on TV and called it a perfect tribute to Ali.

“The world paused for his fights,” he said. “The world paused even bigger when he was finally gone and just recognized that we were in the presence of excellence.”

Lonnie Ali, also a Louisville native, said she hopes the exhibit shows people how the outpouring of affection for her husband “brought not just this city together, but the world.”

“This exhibit is a way to continue to share that week of love, remembrance and unity and say thank you,” she said. “It’s also an opportunity to show everyone, we can come together as one for the good of all.”

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