LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Muhammad Ali sent opponents crashing to the canvas. Now the boxing great is being portrayed on canvas in his Kentucky hometown.
A contemporary art show featuring 25 pieces created by 21 artists from across the country opens to the public on Friday at the Muhammad Ali Center, the cultural and education complex that promotes his social activism and relives his boxing exploits.
Some of the artwork portrays Ali defeating Sonny Liston and George Foreman in his heyday as heavyweight champion.
Artist Corey Pickett of Clovis, N.M., chose another side as his subject — Ali's role in the civil-rights movement. Pickett's artwork, created from corrugated paper, shows a steely image of Ali in a red, white and blue background to symbolize his role in American society.
"I wanted to show not the boxing side but the civil-rights side, the movement," Pickett said. "I wanted to put him with things that represent America. I wanted to portray him as an American."
The exhibit's curators, Brady and A. Michelle Blakeley, asked the artists to recreate their memories of Ali.
The Blakeleys, who own a gallery in Sacramento, Calif., came up with the idea of an Ali-inspired exhibit as a tribute to the boxing great for his 70th birthday a year ago. Ali turned 71 on Thursday.
Works are in charcoal, pen, acrylic, oil, spray paint and corrugated paper.
The show offers some unique images of one of the world's most recognizable figures. One piece, in ball point pen, shows a caricature of a young Ali in boxing gear. Ali is portrayed as malnourished, to symbolize his drive to achieve greatness.
"This is when he was hungry for what he was trying to get and he hadn't gotten there yet," Brady Blakeley said.
Ali's introduction to boxing was spurred by the theft of his bicycle when he was 12. Ali, then known as Cassius Clay Jr., was introduced to Joe Martin, a police officer who doubled as a boxing coach at a local gym. The youngster soon became a regular in Martin's gym.
Another exhibit piece shows a young Ali in sparring headgear. The artist emblazoned the headgear with the word "Forever," meant to signify that Ali's message of peace, spirituality and personal growth are timeless.
"His message is still relevant today," Brady Blakeley said. "There is still hope to make this place better for all of us to get along. For you to be who you want to be, and do what you want to do."
The artwork will be on display at the Ali Center until March 16. The exhibit has been displayed previously at the Blakeleys' gallery and in Las Vegas. They hope to have it shown elsewhere, adding more artwork for future shows.
Ali won the heavyweight title in 1964, defeating the heavily favoured Liston. Soon after, Ali — who was raised in a Baptist family — announced his conversion to Islam and changed his name.
While in his prime, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight crown in 1967 for refusing to be drafted for military service during the Vietnam War. He cited his religious beliefs as the reason for his refusal.
His decision alienated Ali from many across the U.S. and resulted in a draft-evasion conviction. Ali found himself embroiled in a long legal fight that ended in 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favour.
He regained the heavyweight title in 1974, defeating Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle."
Ali's last title came in 1978 when he defeated Leon Spinks.
Ali retired from boxing in 1981 and devoted himself to social causes. He has travelled the world on humanitarian missions, mingling with the masses and rubbing elbows with world leaders. Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005.