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New Ali center shows legend's place in US racism fight


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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky, Nov 21 (AFP) - Before visitors can even step off the escalator and see the first exhibit at the Muhammad Ali Center, the voice and poetry of the boxer in his youthful prime greets guests from around the world.

"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." "Rumble young man rumble." "I'm so mean I make medicine sick." "If you think the world was surprised when (Richard) Nixon resigned, just wait until I whip George Foreman's behind."

The 75 million-dollar museum and cultrual center, a lasting tribute to Ali's fights against bigotry and boxers, opened to the public here Monday with people from around the world viewing Ali's growth and advancement as a man and legend.

"I'm just a major fan. I had to come," 20-year-old Dubliner Hussain Yazdani said after flying here alone. "It's unbelievable. People need to see this.

"It's someplace they can learn about what he went through, the sacrifices he made. I think you will see people from around the world travel to be here."

Ali, whose rhymed boasts and fleet-footed shuffle captivated a world, is now 63 and has limited vocal and movement abilities due to Parkinson's disease.

"God gave me this physical impairment to remind me that I'm not the greatest. He is," Ali says in a center display on spirituality.

Ali appeared at weekend dedication activities and on Friday toured the museum, where minor construction work remains ongoing.

"We were amazed as we looked. We were filled with such pride," Ali's wife, Lonnie Ali, said. "We were overwhelmed, awed and humbled."

For those who feel that way about Ali, the museum is a shrine complete with videos of fights and his anti-war era plus memorabilia such as a robe from Elvis Presley and the torch he used to light the 1996 Olympic flame in Atlanta.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom he received earlier this month sits in a display case in the museum lobby. Awards honoring him as the greatest athlete of 20th Century are shown on upper floors.

An emotional journey through Ali's life, how he affected and was affected by racial tensions in 1960s America, begins with a poignant video that includes Ali's global travels.

The flamboyance and charisma of young Cassius Marcellus Clay and his outspoken manner in an era of segregation and repression blazed a trail that modern black sports heroes such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods followed.

Ali's refusal to fight in the Vietnam War cost him boxing's heavyweight throne and millions of dollars because he was unable to fight for 3 1/2 years. But he took a stand far beyond simply dodging the draft.

"I got no quarrel with them Vietcong," Ali said in 1967. "How can I kill somebody when five times a day I pray for peace?

"You want me to be so scared of the white man I'll go and get two arms shot off and 10 medals so you can give me a small salary and pat my head and say, 'Good boy, he fought for our country.'"

Ali's message resonates today with US soldiers in Iraq and concerns over violence in the name of Muslim faith.

"I believe in Allah and peace. When you harm other people, that's disrespect to the God that created them," Ali says. "The only religion that matters is the real religion - love."

Approach a snack bar with stools and you hear voices yell, "Get out. You know we can't serve your kind in here."

In the style of museums honoring Martin Luther King Jnr and Nelson Mandela, a display pays tribute to how Ali faced racism, Ali saying, "Anything black was bad and anything white was great. Even Tarzan in the jungle was a white man."

"Blacks were considered sub-human... and then he came along and faced the camera and said, 'Black is beautiful,'" ring physician Ferdie Pacheco said.

"He was pretty. He had poems to say. People laughed at everything he said. He made you want to be great," recalled former champion George Foreman.

"It gave young black kids something to look up to, something to go for, strengthening them," said Lennox Lewis, the British former champion who helped finance a museum display.

Pictures with Elvis, the Beatles, Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama are displayed and a huge projection screen shaped like a ring and viewed from high above help dazzle visitors.

A replica of Ali's rural training area gives visitors a chance to shadow box with Ali, punch bags and even don boxing gloves and receive some lessons in a ring with video instruction from Laila Ali, the champ's unbeaten daughter.

Ali once claimed to be a prophet and when it came to boxing he lived up to the label, accurately predicting in 1971 that even without the official throne, he would be known as boxing's true king.

"I'll be the ghost that haunts boxing," Ali said. "People will say, 'Ali is the real champ and everyone else is a fake.'"

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COPYRIGHT 2005 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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