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Muhammad Ali exhibit offers insightful look at icon

BEVERLY HILLS — Like the man himself, the “Muhammad Ali: The Greatest of All Time” exhibit displayed at the Beverly Center through the first week of February, is somber at times, bold in just about every way and spectacular and nuanced in its complexity to introduce or re-introduce people to the life and ways of the former three-time heavyweight boxing champion.

Ali was a lot of things to a lot of people. The sprawling exhibit does an excellent job of showcasing the man and the myth. At a time when the country was undergoing changes in its democracy, Ali stood out in more ways than one. Ali’s rise to worldwide stardom, however, would start with him eating some humble pie.

“We actually began back in the beginning, telling the story of Ali’s red bike when his bike was stolen at the age of 12 and he actually reported it to a local police officer and said that he would whup up on the person who stole his bike,” said exhibit curator Angie Marchese. “The police officer asked him did he actually know how to fight. He (Ali) said, no. So, he (police officer) said, ‘Come down to the gym and I will train you. You need to know how to fight before you whup up on somebody, and that’s the legend of Muhammad Ali.’ That’s kind of where we start and what he meant to the world outside of the ring.”

Ali put smiles on a lot of people’s faces. He also rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But that was Ali. His humanity exceeded his boxing skills.

His unafraid blunt assessment of the world that was around him made him a lovable but sometimes reviled figure. Ali had the ability to bless you with his charming smile but at the same time he could anger you with one of his bombastic and boastful rants. 

The late Joe Frazier, Ali’s longtime foe in the ring and foil out of it, could attest to this. That was the beauty of Ali.

He was not a perfect man. He had his share of flaws. But he also exhibited the best in us and challenged us to be the best we could be, whatever we were doing. 

When people saw Ali stand up and not back down to a government that wanted to imprison him because of his refusal to be drafted into the military and join his fellow American comrades in the Vietnam War, courage and unbridled defiance became his illustrated trademarks.

His tantalizing soliloquies about race in America was a constant haymaker he threw at the public at a time when police dogs, bombings, sit-ins, water hoses and Jim Crow laws clashed with a lot more intense fervor that he and his opponents would dance to in the boxing ring. Ali rose from a whimpering kid looking to silence the tormentors who bullied him to folk hero.

“The unique thing about the exhibit is everyone knows a lot about Ali,” Marchese said. “But we have people here … they lived it. They watched the fights. They lived through the struggles. They lived through him standing up for his convictions and not going into the Army and not fighting in the Vietnam War, and possibly losing his boxing career while he was in the prime of his career.

“There are a lot of people who only know of Ali when he retired,” she continued. “Being able to open up the whole drove of Muhammad Ali to all kinds of people, people who lived it and who go, ‘Oh, I remember this.’ They can actually walk through the exhibit and see what he stood for and why he was such an icon to them and he was such an icon to them as well as for a newer generation who knows he’s the greatest of all time, might never see him fight, but to be able to appreciate who he was as a boxer as well as a humanitarian.”

Ali was pop culture long before it was cool to embrace, taking home the gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics as a young Cassius Clay before doing the unthinkable in sending big, bad Sonny Liston into an inglorious ending. When it comes to the end game, no one did it better than Ali, who crushed Frazier’s dream to reign as the baddest man on the planet when he edged out two of the three fights against his fierce rival in their epic trilogy.

George Foreman received that memo a day late and a dollar short. Ali pummeled the Texas muscle man with the rope-a-dope strategy in their famous “Rumble in the Jungle” affair. Then there is the matter of Ali becoming the first man in boxing history to win the heavyweight crown three times. The Louisville native achieved that feat after he handled upstart Leon Spinks in a rematch of their first fight.

That’s quite a bit of history. Thankfully, Muhammad Ali Enterprises is allowing the public to get an in-depth look into the backyard of the history-maker with an exhaustive examination of Ali with “Muhammad Ali: The Greatest of All Time.” 

The colorful exhibition takes fans on a historic pathway to what made Ali great in and out of the ring with countless videos highlighting his most memorable boxing feats, iconic images and echoes of some of his more noteworthy quotes and comments.

To say that Ali was just a Hall of Fame boxer would do the man an injustice. Ali was an icon who was greatly admired across the globe. His role as an unwitting activist during the civil rights era in the 1960s and early 1970s put him at odds against the U.S. government. He will always be known as that guy who denounced going to war, even losing his heavyweight boxing title in the process because of his conviction.

Like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X or even Huey Newton, Ali is symbolized today as a civil rights hero. But he was a whole lot more than a talking point for a particular cause. He was an electric showman, an irresistible and charming protagonist to friend and foe. That is what made him Muhammad Ali.

“Probably the one thing you will come away with is great memories of who he was as a person,” Marchese said. “Like a lot of icons, Ali has always been a part of our lives. He was just always there. He was an icon who was always a part of my life when I was growing up. It’s being able to go back and relive these memories as they actually happened.”

The exhibit is open at the Beverly Center, 8500 Beverly Blvd., on Level Eight near the Grand Court. Information: www.circleexhibits.com.