Cassius Clay was born in Kentucky, but Muhammad Ali was born on the South Side of Chicago.
Ali lived in Chicago, where he found his faith, for about a dozen years. He would cruise in his Rolls-Royce down Lake Shore Drive or stop in for a steak at Gene & Georgetti.
Ali, who died Friday at 74, got married and started his family here and would have fought one of his bouts for the heavyweight championship of the world here, too, but politics prevented it.
The young boxer first came to Chicago in the late 1950s to compete in Golden Gloves tournaments, held at the old Chicago Stadium. Heavyweight Ernie Terrell, who was to have boxed Ali in Chicago, said the future champ made a big impression even then.
“KING OF THE WORLD” — Steinberg looks back at Ali’s life
“He ran his mouth a lot,” Terrell told an interviewer, recounting how before a Golden Gloves in 1957, “Ali got up and said, ‘I want every light heavyweight to stand up.’ And they did. And he said, ‘I just want to tell you, you know who’s going to win this thing? It’s gonna be me!’ He just left us standing there looking at each other. That’s the first time I noticed him.”
At a Golden Gloves fight, the teen who grew up attending Louisville’s Centennial Olivet Baptist Church first encountered ministers preaching a creed that was unknown to most Americans at the time: the Nation of Islam. He would bring LP records of sermons by its leader, Elijah Muhammad, back to Louisville with him. His conversion to Islam was publicly announced at a Saviours’ Day rally at the Chicago Colosseum.
Ali lived in a number of places on the South Side — initially a small home at 8500 S. Jeffrey, after marrying Sonji Roi, then a penthouse in the 7600 block of South Shore Drive, then a condominium at 69th and Crandon, then a Hyde Park mansion.
Ali was known to confront his opponents — he had parked his bus in front of Sonny Liston’s house and challenged him to fight on the spot. In July 1965, Ali jumped up on the stage at the Regal Theater during Ernie Terrell’s singing act. Terrell was in the middle of “Johnny B. Goode” when Ali began shouting that he was the champ.
Both men started peeling off their clothes.
“I was up there singing, and he started clowning around,” Terrell said. “It was all in good fun.”
The Chicago championship was scheduled for March 29, 1966 at the old International Amphitheater at 43rd and Halsted.
Cassius Clay was born in Kentucky, but Muhammad Ali was born on the South Side of Chicago. Press releases were sent out. Then, Ali refused to be inducted into the Army.
Mayor Richard J. Daley denounced Ali. Gov. Otto Kerner asked the commission to cancel the Chicago fight in view of Ali’s “unpatriotic” and “disgusting” statements. The Chicago Tribune thundered its agreement.
“I don’t have to apologize,” Ali said. “I’m not in court.”
Illinois Attorney General William Clark ruled that the match violated state law, based on obscure licensing provisions he had dug up, including that, by signing “Muhammad Ali,” one contestant had not signed his correct name. The Illinois Athletic Commission withdrew its sanction, and the match was canceled.
Between fights, Ali would sometimes visit Johnny Coulon’s legendary gym on East 63rd Street, take off his shirt and box whichever fighters happened to be hanging around.
As glamorous as his life was, Ali would also sometimes take a camper and vacation with his family at the Indiana Dunes.
He was constantly hailed with “Hi,champ!” as he walked the streets and loved to stop by playgrounds filled with children and do magic tricks for them.
When he went to Zaire in 1974 for the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, his personal bodyguard was an on-duty Chicago policeman, Pat Patterson, whom Ali persuaded Mayor Daley to assign to him full-time.
“He was kind and sweet and taught me how to treat people with decency,” Patterson told the Tribune in 1988. “He showed me the joy of living is giving, not receiving.”
Ali’s time in Chicago came to an end in 1977, when he married his third wife, Veronica Porsche, who was from Los Angeles and wanted to live there.
In 1986, he married his fourth wife, Lonnie, and moved to Berrien Springs, Michigan, but he often visited Chicago, where several of his five children lived.