‘The Greatest’ got his start working at a Louisville Catholic college
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.
“He would leave Central High School at 2pm and work in the library until about 6pm. 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 Centre. 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 practised his cutting jabs and fast footwork, is still used by Spalding athletes today.
McClure worked closely with Ali as the first development director of the Muhammad Ali Centre. And she spoke of her relationship with the world-renowned sports figure at Spalding’s graduation last week.
To begin the commencement, McClure read a piece of poetry from the Louisville Lip.
“Stay 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.”
McClure, 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.
“I 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.”
“I 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.
“Our 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.”
McClure noted that the Columbia Gym was integrated, a rarity in the 1950s.
“The South Broadway neighbourhood and Nazareth were integrated as well. That didn’t exist in many parts of Louisville,” McClure said.
The self-proclaimed greatest boxer of all time died on 3rd June in a Scottsdale, Arizona, hospital. He was 74.
Photo: A red bike hangs above the entrance of the former Columbia Auditorium where the young Muhammad Ali used to train. Ali reported the bike stolen to a police officer who ran a boxing club in the building’s basement.Tags: Muhammad Ali, Muslim, religious order, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Spalding University, Tori Murden McClure