Muhammad Ali was just getting warmed up. “I want everybody from this moment on to recognize me as the scholar of boxing,” he declared in his steaming-hot dressing room in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Congo). “If you want to know any damn thing about boxing, don’t go to no boxing experts in Las Vegas, don’t go to no Jimmy the Greek, you come to Muhammad Ali—I am the man.” On that night, October 30, 1974, it was hard to dispute: he had just won his crowning victory, beating the seemingly invincible 26-year-old George Foreman (in his pre-grill-selling incarnation), regaining the heavyweight title taken from him in 1967, when he refused military service in the Vietnam War. The press had doubted the 32-year-old Ali’s chances, and now he was letting them have it.
Then, after a tribute to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and, of all people, Playboy impresario Hugh Hefner, the new champion offered thanks not often heard. “Hello to all my friends in Louisville, Kentucky! . . . where I started. I’m recognized all over the world now, but my greatness came and started in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the greatest cities in America.” It was sometimes hard to remember what American city Ali had come from—he seemed too big for any one place. But his tribute was a reminder that even citizens of the world start somewhere, and that the formative influence of these places usually stays with us.
Many say that globalism is eroding the distinctive character of American cities, but throughout our history, local identity, regionalism, and civic (and urban) pride have remained powerful forces. In sports, place has always been essential, defining rooting interests and giving professional teams distinctive identities: with so many movie stars watching courtside, the Los Angeles Lakers at their best naturally played a glamorous, fast-moving style of basketball; playing in sometimes-polar temperatures in a city known for plainspokenness and hard work, the Chicago Bears’ brand of football was characterized by brute force; and performing in the nation’s financial and media capital, the New York Yankees wore pinstripes, dominated headlines, and built monuments to their own greatness. But if the teams were local by definition, the origins of even prominent players could easily be overlooked. How many knew that the Yankees’ Derek Jeter grew up in Kalamazoo?
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