Muhammad Ali Center Looks to the Future After 10 Years

A daylong celebration will be held Saturday to mark a major milestone for Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Center. The international cultural center and museum was dedicated 10 years ago this week.

The $80 million center, founded by the Louisville-born boxing champion and his wife, Lonnie, came to life along the city’s waterfront after more than a decade of planning and fundraising.

But despite early financial struggles, the Muhammad Ali Center has found sound footing and is looking toward the future.

The 2005 dedication weekend included a Saturday night gala, featuring some of the biggest names in sports, entertainment and politics. There were many tributes to Muhammad Ali that night, including words of praise from former President Bill Clinton.

“You proved once again that the power of example matters a lot more than the example of power,” Clinton told Ali.

In an interview that weekend, Lonnie Ali said the idea for the center sprang in part from an exhibit of Ali boxing memorabilia collected by a relative. But the center would have to be something more, with an emphasis on education and young people.

“It had to be something that contributed to society, to others,” she said. “It couldn’t be just about Muhammad, because we never wanted that. We didn’t want anything to idolize Muhammad. So what? I mean, what does that do for anybody? Nothing. And Muhammad has never been like that in his life. He’s always been an outward person.”

It has been an ambitious undertaking: a multifaceted center with both local and international outreach.

“One of our biggest accomplishments, I believe, is starting to make a great impact in the community,” said Donald Lassere, who has been president and CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center since 2012. “Through our temporary exhibits, we’re able to talk to the community and educate the community on global issues.”

Lassere said those exhibits and other programs are inspired and informed by Muhammad Ali’s six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.

One specific goal has been to help close the enrichment gap and lower the dropout rate in Jefferson County Public Schools.

“For example, we have a program now called the MACCS program, the Muhammad Ali Center Council of Students,” Lassere said. “And that program has sort of given us a roadmap for helping students become more engaged in things outside of school that really help them along their academic path.”

Lassere said he hopes to expand that program to other geographical areas in the years ahead.

Under his watch, the center has also launched the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards, which honor people from around the world who make significant contributions toward peace, social justice, human rights and other areas.

This year’s honorees include 13-year-old Hadiqa Bashir of Pakistan, who founded a program for disenfranchised girls in her country, and singer and activist Harry Belafonte.

The center also houses a permanent museum dedicated to Ali’s boxing career, his conversion to Islam and the Supreme Court case over his resistance, on religious grounds, to the military draft during the Vietnam War.

Lassere said the museum is having one of its best attendance years. He said despite the usual fundraising challenges faced by nonprofits, the center has “turned the corner” financially.

Muhammad Ali will turn 74 in January and has been slowed considerably by Parkinson’s disease. But Lassere said Muhammad and Lonnie Ali remain committed to the center’s mission and success.

“They do a lot for the center,” he said. “Muhammad is, from my perspective, amazing. He still lights up a room. When you look into his eyes, you see that sparkle in his eyes. He’s just amazing to be around.”

Rick Howlett

Rick Howlett is WFPL's Broadcast Managing Editor and also produces feature and general assignment radio stories.