The rise of “The Greatest”: Friends remember Muhammad Ali

Global Business

Arguably the best-known athlete in the world, Muhammad Ali came from humble beginnings. Then known as Cassius Clay, Ali lived in a modest house in Louisville, Kentucky. 

CCTV America’s Sean Callebs joins reports from the boxer’s hometown.

The rise of The Greatest Friends remember Muhammad Ali

Arguably the best-known athlete in the world, Muhammad Ali came from humble beginnings. Then known as Cassius Clay, Ali lived in a modest house in Louisville, Kentucky. CCTV America's Sean Callebs joins reports from the boxer's hometown.

Ali’s father, a painter, chose to paint the house pink as an homage to his famous son, who loved the color.

82-year-old Lawrence Montgomery, Ali’s longtime friend, lives across the street and had a front row seat to history.

“He did tell me at one time while he was sparring with my hands that he was going to be heavyweight champion of the world one of these days. And my reply to him was, ‘man, you are crazy you won’t be able to do that’,” Montgomery said.

Ali grew up in Kentucky in the 1940s and ’50s during the Jim Crow era when segregation and racism still thrived. Ali grew up in a middle class, black section of Louisville, but the barrier separating blacks and whites was as clear as day.

Montgomery said he remembers a young man driven to succeed in the ring.

“In the mornings when he started training, he would run down to the local park wearing heavy boots and a uniform on — that was before going to school,” Montgomery said.

That park, called Chickasaw, and Central High School, his alma mater, are still there today. But racism was tougher than any foe in the ring. After winning an Olympic gold medal in 1960, Ali returned home, but was refused service at a Louisville diner. So dejected, he went to the nearby Ohio River and tossed the medal into the river. But he never stopped fighting for equal rights.

“It was very important because he broke a lot of barriers for us — just like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X — all of us. They keep striving, just have to keep striving,” Debora Gathwright, Ali fan, said.

Part of Ali’s legacy is his conviction. He converted to Islam at the height of his career and refused to be inducted into the U.S. army and fight in Vietnam, citing his religious convictions.

“I will say no. I will not go,” he said.

Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and could no longer fight in the United States. His popularity plunged in the U.S and many vilified him. His longtime friend remembers the painful period for Ali.

“It was hard to watch — I thought it was his decision and what he decided he wanted to do. God bless him. It was his decision,  I had no qualms against it or for it,” Montgomery said.

Ali was eventually vindicated, and resumed his career and went on to claim the heavyweight crown three separate times.

Montgomery loves talking about the good times, when the greatest was king. Montgomery cherishes the scrapbooks, photo albums and notes Ali scribbled to him.

Ali was dedicated to his sport and he paid the price over the last 30 years.

“You know, when it was first diagnosed that he had Parkinson’s disease, I thought it was something temporary. I never heard of Parkinson’s disease. but as the years went by -he continued to show how he fought it -he really fought the disease for 30 years,” Montgomery said. 

Parkinson’s robbed Ali of speech and movement, but not spirit. When he died, he was surrounded by his family.

“You know, it was time for him to go — and I know he’s in a better place now. And he’s talking again, and moving again and doing all those things he couldn’t do in his body and you know. I’m happy for that even though I will miss him deeply,” Laila Ali, his daughter, said. 

Mark Gray on Ali’s economic impact

According to various reports, Muhammad Ali is worth between $50 to 80 million, which means his financial standing is a lot more humble than his larger-than-life personality and stellar pro-boxing career.

Most of that came from a decade ago when Ali sold 80 percent of his company Greatest of All Time or Goat to a concert promoter. Some of the biggest paydays in his boxing days were with his fights with George Foreman and Larry Holmes.

But Ali was more focused on helping the world’s needy and working for gender, economic and racial equality.
CCTV America’s Rachelle Akuffo interviewed Mark Gray, the host and the HSRN of, about Ali’s connection with China and his international outreach.
Follow Rachelle Akuffo on Twitter @RachelleAkuffo

Donald Lassere discusses the impact and legacy of Muhammad Ali

CCTV-America’s Sean Callebs interviewed more with Donald Lassere, president and CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center, about his legacy, Louisville, race, and the 6-point belief system.