Fayette County

Remembering Muhammad Ali’s trip to help heal Lexington

Muhammad Ali in Kentucky

Memorable images of Muhammad Ali in Kentucky.
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Memorable images of Muhammad Ali in Kentucky.

October 1994 was one of Lexington’s darkest chapters.

An 18-year-old unarmed black man named Tony Sullivan was killed by a white Lexington police officer. The officer, Sgt. Phil Vogel, said his gun fired by accident. He was not indicted or criminally charged, and Sullivan’s death sparked public protest and raised tensions across Lexington.

That’s when Chester Grundy had a thought.

“I was trying to come up with an idea to bring some calm to the situation,” said the founder of the Martin Luther King Cultural Center at the University of Kentucky.

Grundy had just seen the play Ali at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta and thought its message could help heal Lexington’s wounds.

So with the help of former Gov. John Y. Brown, Jr., one of Ali’s fans, they brought the ex-heavyweight champion boxer and his play to Lexington.

“We were inviting Ali the humanitarian, not the sports celebrity,” Grundy said.

On February 18, 1995, Ali visited Lexington’s Dunbar Community Center. It was supposed to be just a 45-minute visit to the center, but Ali’s wife, Lonnie, told Grundy, “You need to plan for longer. It’s going to take longer to get him out of there.”

Ali, then 53, did not speak much during his 2 1/2-hour morning visit with about 300 at the Dunbar Community Center — his Parkinson’s disease made it difficult for him to talk. But he cuddled and kissed babies, embraced his fans and signed scraps of paper, boxing gloves and a Muhammad Ali pinball machine. By the time he left, he had a smear of pink lipstick on his left cheek and dozens of small boys clutching at his coattails.

“They were drawn to his incredible personality,” Grundy said. “When he walked in it was like magic.”

Next was a visit to Rupp Arena to see the basketball Wildcats take on Florida. But Ali had other plans first.

During the ride to Rupp, Ali said, “I think I’ll stop some traffic now.”

So he stood up in the limousine at the intersection of Upper and Main streets. “The intersection was at a standstill,” said Grundy of the people hoping to get a peek of the Louisville native.

As they arrived at Rupp, Grundy said Ali was presented with two ways to enter the basketball arena — a secure tunnel that led directly to the floor, or the crowded lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel adjacent to Rupp Arena. Ali chose the crowd.

“He entertained, and he told jokes. He was in the moment,” Grundy said. “The energy of that room was what he wanted.”

A playful Ali met the UK players in the locker room before the game. “He said, ‘I’ll take you all on,’” guard Jeff Sheppard said at the time.

But Ali also threw some punches. “I jabbed at Anthony Epps,” Rodrick Rhodes said of the meeting. “He told Epps he reminded him of Joe Frazier.”

During the game the three-time heavyweight boxing champion sat on the team bench with sunglasses on.

UK coach Rick Pitino said after the game that the UK players were too young to remember Ali in his fighting prime. “For me, personally, it was a thrill of a lifetime,” the coach said of Ali’s presence on the bench.

With 1:23 left and the Cats ahead by two, 77-75, Sheppard was fouled but had to leave the game because of blood on his nose. Chris Harrison entered the game and made both free throws. As Harrison shot and team physician David Caborn worked on a cut on Sheppard’s nose, Sheppard turned to Ali and said something. Ali and Sheppard then smiled. “I told him I got punched in the nose,” Sheppard said.

Ali spent that night in Lexington and attended church the next day before leaving.