The three-time world heavyweight champion basked in the attention in Louisville, where he received an award from the University of Louisville. School President James Ramsey presented Ali with the medal as the first-ever Grawemeyer Spirit Award winner for his role in inspiring others.
Grawemeyer Awards are presented each year for music composition, education, religion, psychology and improving world order.
After a series of tributes recounting his triumphs as a boxer and his humanitarian efforts outside the ring, the 73-year-old Ali appeared on stage at a downtown theater.
Ali, who is battling Parkinson’s disease, stayed seated but raised his right hand briefly to acknowledge the crowd, which chanted “Ali! Ali!”
“In accepting this award, we are reminded that Muhammad’s life continues to inspire generations of people to discover and cultivate their own path to greatness and to use their talents and successes to empower others in communities all over the world,” said Ali’s wife, Lonnie.
Public appearances by the self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time” have diminished in recent years. Ali is scheduled to attend this year’s ceremony Saturday for winners of humanitarian awards named after Ali. Singer and activist Harry Belafonte and Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis are among the latest winners of Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards.
The ceremony Thursday took place near the site where Ali was introduced to boxing as a 12-year-old, when he wanted to whip whoever had stolen his bicycle. Ali became a regular at the gym, launching a career that made him an Olympic gold medalist, heavyweight champ and one of the world’s most recognizable figures.
Ali has focused on humanitarian causes, promoting racial and religious tolerance, since retiring from the ring. The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville is dedicated to Ali’s humanitarian efforts and showcases his boxing career.
Ali has homes in multiple states, and now spends much of his time in Arizona.
The event came a day after anti-Islamic messages were found spray-painted on the outside of the Louisville Islamic Center.
During Thursday’s ceremony, the Rev. Michael Jinkins, president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, referred to the vandalism committed against “our Muslim neighbors.” He said the vandals’ actions “were not in God’s name.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has asked the community to help the center paint over the graffiti on Friday.