Muhammad Ali at a UofL Basketball game.
Muhammad Ali at a UofL Basketball game.

Muhammad Ali was a true champion of his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and by extension, the University of Louisville. The boxing icon and civil rights ambassador passed away Friday at age 74, leaving behind a deep global and local legacy.

Born Cassius Clay in 1942 in the Derby City, Ali eventually became known as the “Louisville Lip” for his big talk, which he backed up with three world heavyweight titles.

Last year, Ali received the inaugural Grawemeyer Spirit Award, which was established to recognize an individual whose beliefs, actions and impact are in accord with Charles Grawemeyer’s reason for founding the awards program that bears his name.

During the awards ceremony, UofL President James Ramsey said Ali envisions “a world where every individual’s worth is cause for celebration; a world in which inspiration plus action can lead to transformation; a world where each of us can make positive change by discovering our own greatness.”

After learning of Ali’s death, Dr. Ramsey said, “It was an honor to share the stage with Muhammad at our Grawemeyer Spirit Award event. He was an inspiration to me and to everyone around the world. His message of peace and understanding is something for all of us to emulate. He will be forever missed but forever remembered.”

The Grawemeyer Spirit Award includes a $100,000 honorarium, a portion of which Ali and his wife Lonnie used to establish a leadership scholarship with the Cardinal Baseball team.

Their son, Assad, played for the team from 2009 through 2012.

Upon learning of Ali’s death, UofL VP and Director of Athletics, Tom Jurich, said: “All of us in the Cardinal Athletics family are deeply, deeply saddened with the passing of an absolute worldwide legend in Muhammad. While he was undoubtedly one of the greatest athletes in history, the Champ made a difference in the lives of so many around the world. His generosity with his time for anything we asked of him – or things he offered to do without us asking – was incredible, as was the financial commitment he and Lonnie made to our baseball program at UofL. It was a true honor for me to know him and he will be greatly missed. Our deepest sympathies and prayers go out to Lonnie and the entire family.”

UofL also boasts the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice, with a mission of advancing the work, study and practice of peacebuilding, social justice and violence prevention through the development of innovative programs, training, service and research.

The Ali Scholars is part of this institute, offered to full-time undergraduate UofL students who work toward social justice, violence prevention and peace building. Ali Scholars experience international travel to explore these objectives in different cultural, political and economic environments.

“The Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of Louisville mourns the loss of a transformative humanitarian who had the courage and conviction to make the world a better place. We remember him as he wished – as someone who helped people worldwide in their ‘fight for freedom, justice and equality.’ Our work will continue to be inspired by his lifelong commitment to these fundamental human values, including the pursuit of racial and social justice. We offer our heartfelt condolences to the Ali family and we grieve with our community for the loss of a transcendent civil rights and religious freedom icon and champion,” said Enid Trucios-Haynes, Interim Director of the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace & Justice. 

Below is video from last year’s Grawemeyer Spirit Award event honoring Muhammad Ali. It was one of his last public appearances.


Alicia Kelso
Alicia Kelso is the director of social media and digital content. She joined UofL in 2015 as director of communications at the Brandeis School of Law. She also serves as a senior contributor at, writing about the restaurant industry, which she has covered since 2010. Her work has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Bloomberg, The Seattle Times, Good Morning America and Franchise Asia Magazine.