Campus benefits from life, inspiration of boxing legend Muhammad Ali

Display at the Ali Center reads Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee

Etched into boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s gravestone are the still-impactful words from his 1978 quote, “Service to others was the rent I paid for my room in heaven.” While his devastating reach in the ring was 78 inches, the reach of his legacy as a champion for social justice and civil rights continues to be global and now touches Hanover’s campus through a profound new collaboration.

Through six decades, Ali – who famously promoted himself as “The Greatest” – was a world-wide phenomenon as a prizefighter, activist and humanitarian. He launched his amateur boxing career in 1954 and became a professional in 1960. Inside the ropes, he logged 100 bouts as an amateur and had 61 professional fights. Through his journey, he won state and national Gold Gloves championships, U.S. light-heavyweight titles, captured an Olympic gold medal as an 18-year-old and, later, earned three world heavyweight championships.

Often braggadocious, Ali was as quick with his quips and verbal jabs as he was with his footwork and lightning-fast punches. In early 1964, just prior to his bout with then-champion Sonny Liston, Ali – at the time known as Cassius Clay – uttered possibly his most famous quote, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, the hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”

Just 22 years old at the time, Ali went on to “shock the world” with a seventh-round technical knockout against the favored Liston to win his first world title. From that moment, he became an international spectacle, fighting around the world in front of massive crowds and enormous network television audiences.

Perhaps his greatest victories, however, came outside the ring.

Ali unapologetically and, often theatrically, used his fame and global stage to fight for the betterment of all people. For decades, he used his prominence to push world leaders on issues including world peace, religious freedom, equal rights, hunger relief and cross-cultural understanding. He received many awards for his humanitarian efforts around the world, among them the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, Amnesty International Lifetime Achievement Award and the distinction as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Though he died June 3, 2016, the boxer’s words, actions and inspiration continue to live – and thrive – at the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. Founded in 2005, the Ali Center’s purpose is to preserve and share the legacy and ideals of the legendary prizefighter, promote respect, hope and understanding, and inspire adults and children to be as great as they can be.

Erin Herbert ’03, director of education and programming at the Muhammad Ali Center

“Muhammad fundamentally believed that he was put on this earth – we are all put on this earth – to connect, to build community, to see what we can do together to make the world a slightly better place,” said Erin Herbert ’03, director of education and programming at the Ali Center. “That’s really the purpose and the intent behind the Muhammad Ali Center. He really believed that every single person could make a difference if we just figure out what we care about and how we intersect what we care about with going out and making a difference.”

A burgeoning partnership is integrating the Ali Center’s mission with Hanover’s campus-wide diversity and inclusion efforts. The relationship stems from deep, uncomfortable and emotional campus-wide conversations following prolonged civil unrest during the summer of 2020.

More than one year ago, members of the campus community began to seek ways to inject experiential diversity, equity and inclusion history, and community aspects into the College’s fiber. The first step was officially taken last winter, when Hanover’s faculty and staff participated in an eye-opening virtual diversity and inclusion workshop presented by Herbert and members of the Ali Center staff.

The next step was to find an avenue to incorporate the Ali Center’s wealth of programming into student life. A blending of Hanover’s first-year introductory college-success course and existing curriculum from the University of Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice presented the opportunity.

First-year 101 (FY101) is the only course required for all Hanover students. The course begins during the August Experience, the College’s first-year orientation program, and continues through the fall term. The curriculum introduces students to critical thinking, requires a written thesis or presentation and builds themes and connections that continue through the term and beyond.

The Ali Institute’s curriculum is designed to inspire racial and social justice action by participants. The coursework contains lessons for each of the famed boxer’s six core principles focused on critical consciousness education: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. The program uses an evidence-based approach to learning, designed to help all students understand systems of oppression and their roles as agents of change.

In late August, more than 300 members of the campus community encountered the magnitude of Ali’s life and legacy. Hanover’s first-year students, peer advisors, peer mentors, faculty advisors and FY101 instructors traveled to the Ali Center for an in-person look at the legend. Photos from the event can be found here.

During the visit, the Hanoverians roamed the center to absorb its dynamic multimedia presentations, interactive exhibits, historical videos and countless images and artifacts. The displays not only span Ali’s boxing career but also shed light on his childhood in a segregated Louisville neighborhood, conversion to Islam, opposition to the Vietnam War, humanitarian missions, diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and lighting of the 1996 Olympic cauldron.

The College’s first-year students participated in community-building activities, including a unique scavenger hunt. They were also challenged to think about their roles as members of the campus community, their home communities and global citizenship through the lens of Ali’s principles in action.

Herbert, while addressing the group, stated “How can each and every one of you take your talents, your passions, what you care about, and combine that into just building a slightly better place for everyone to live. That’s a lot to think about, but it’s the journey we intend to take [the campus community] on through this partnership.” 

Reflecting on her impression of the first-time excursion, Katy Lowe Schneider ‘93, associate provost for student outcomes and director of FY101, said, “The field trip to the Ali Center created a common experience for all of our first-year students, allowing us to build class discussion and reflection around what students experienced at the exhibits.”

While the commitment to a common reading varies from student to student, the significance and effectiveness of the common experience was evident throughout the fall term. The Ali Center experience continued to resonate with instructors and students, serving as an anchor and catalyst for conversations through the fall term.

“The Ali principles work wonderfully as building blocks to enhance the existing FY101 curriculum,” said David Harden, Hanover’s director of experiential learning and 10-year veteran as an FY101 instructor. “We can go back to that common experience, talk about the six principles and how we can incorporate that into our lives. Looking at Ali’s life and what he overcame, students can see that using his principles will help them not only be successful at Hanover but also throughout their life.”

“The impact the Ali trip had on our class was definitely a positive one,” noted Trey Murphy ’25, who echoed Harden’s viewpoint. “We always try to include one of his six pillars in class discussion and we talk about how we can use those core values to help us become better individuals in society.”

More than five years after Ali’s death, his legacy continues the fight for global social justice, equal rights and the betterment of all people. Though the words now come from the mouths of others and the hands are not his, “The Greatest” is still floating, still stinging.