At the I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali exhibit at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, viewers immediately see two experiences that defined the boxer’s life. One is of a replica red Schwinn bicycle placed in front of a floor-to-ceiling image of Ali’s childhood home in Louisville, Kentucky. The bike represents a Christmas gift from Ali’s father that was stolen after Ali parked it in front of the Columbia Auditorium gym where he was training.
The other is a 1937 poem about the horrific and grotesque lynching of black Americans by white mobs, pervasive throughout the South. Written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish New York City schoolteacher who’d seen an image of bodies hanging from a tree, the poem was made famous by singer Billie Holiday and was later recorded by Nina Simone and others. Its opening verse: Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Without this poem and what it symbolizes, the story is not complete. In the exhibit, which features images, newsclips and artifacts (including two world championship rings and autographed boxing gloves), there is a clear reminder of when Ali filed as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. There have been two Americas—one for those who are white and one for those who are not. Not only was he famously against the Vietnam War, but he was well aware of the raging conflict in his own country. To put it in context: Ali was born January 17, 1942, one year after Emmett Till, a teenager lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman, was born. Lynch mobs were still hanging black men, women and children from trees, while whites were fighting the desegregation of schools and public spaces, not wanting their world sullied by blacks.
Ali, who grew up in a segregated neighborhood, was 12 years old, infuriated and in tears after his bike was stolen. He reported the theft to a policeman, who ran a gym and (famously) told Ali that before he could give the thief a whupping, he should first learn how to fight. By 1960—just six years later—Ali was a gold medalist at the Olympics in Rome, a celebrated athlete and star featured on national magazine covers.
After becoming the world heavyweight champion in 1964, defeating Sonny Liston, Ali announced he had joined the Nation of Islam and shed his “slave name,” Cassius Clay, to become Muhammad Ali, drawing even more attention to racism in America. Two years later, he filed for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War and was maligned by white Americans embarrassed by his stance, while globally becoming a hero. After his 1967 conviction for draft evasion—stripping him of his titles and banning him from boxing for three years—was overturned in 1971, he returned to the ring and was no longer only a poetic and gifted trash-talking boxer; he was a courageous man who took on injustice in a very public forum. In 1974, he again became the world heavyweight champ, taking the title away from George Foreman.
The exhibit, on display through September 30, takes visitors through Ali’s early life, his boxing career, political and humanitarian efforts (he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 from George W. Bush), celebrity status and role as a civil rights leader. His relationship with Elvis Presley is represented through a replica of the 1973 “The People’s Choice Robe” that Presley had made for him. Images of him with the Nation of Islam hang alongside his words of compassion. In video clips, we see him chiding sportscaster and friend Howard Cosell, watch his unparalleled moves in the boxing ring and learn about his trip to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein, leading to the return of 15 American hostages. Replica belts from his 1974 fight with Foreman in Zaire and his 1978 fight in New Orleans with Leon Spinks, as well as other memorabilia, bring back historic moments in sports. We see him appear on game shows, on award shows, in interviews and on trips to impoverished countries where he met with humanitarian leaders, including Mother Teresa.
The entire show, celebrating the awesome life of a legendary man, connects his six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. Near the entrance is the phrase, “I am the greatest of all time.” Ali said that he made that statement before he even knew it. This exhibit explains how he came to be the greatest—both inside and outside the ring.
I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali
Through September 30, daily, 10 a.m.–8 p.m., $16–$18, Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, bellagio.com/bgfa