Phoenix remembers Muhammad Ali legacy with street renaming, holiday


Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story had a misspelling of Mr. Ali’s name. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

Memories, stories and laughter flowed in abundance for Muhammad Ali’s legacy Monday, June 3 but the focus wasn’t on his accomplishments in the boxing ring.

The Barrow Neurological Institute, 350 W. Thomas Road in Phoenix, hosted a private event that featured the renaming of West Merrell Street, from Third Avenue to Central Avenue, to Muhammad Ali Way. The City of Phoenix also declared June 3, 2019 as Muhammad Ali Day.

Also on hand were several of Mr. Ali’s family members and friends to speak of his legacy at the institute and in the Valley. Barrow Neurological Institute houses the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, which Mr. Ali founded in 1997 and where he received treatment.

Since its opening, the center has grown from its original size of 5,000 square feet to 26,450 square feet, serving over 14,000 patients each year, Linda Hunt, president and CEO of Dignity Health’s Arizona Division, said.

Mr. Ali, a former heavyweight champion, died June 3, 2016 at the age of 74. He made his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease public in 1984 and was an advocate for raising awareness and money for the institute.

The renamed street runs, in part, through Dignity Health’s campus, which includes the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

“Muhammad Ali had many great victories in the ring but most importantly, it was his fight that went on with Parkinson’s disease,” Ms. Hunt said.

“I think that creating the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center here at BNI (Barrow Neurological Institute) was part of what we were about and how we needed to live to honor him.”

Mr. Ali reciprocated the feeling, his wife Lonnie Ali said. She said Mr. Ali was proud to attach his name to the center and, for her, seeing the new street name was “icing on the cake.”

“I think it’s very appropriate because the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center offers compassionate and dignified care for all of its patients and that’s what Muhammad personified. He was a very compassionate man,” she said.

“So people who enter that street, I hope they understand and feel that presence.”

Dr. Abraham Lieberman, Mr. Ali’s retired neurologist, and former boxer Earnie Shavers spoke about Mr. Ali’s character, sharing various stories of their time with him.

Dr. Lieberman, who first met Mr. Ali in 1984, said he originally wasn’t fond of the boxer because of his Vietnam War protest. That protest included Mr. Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the army, citing his Islamic religious beliefs and opposition to the war.

As time went on, Dr. Lieberman, a Vietnam War veteran, grew close to Mr. Ali, saying he saw Mr. Ali’s character throughout his life. One such instance involved Joe Frazier — who Mr. Ali had a deep rivalry with as the two fought three times, two of which were for the heavyweight title.

Dr. Lieberman said while Mr. Ali’s trash talking was never personal, that wasn’t the case for Mr. Frazier. When Mr. Frazier died in 2011, however, Mr. Ali, who Dr. Lieberman recalls was sick in bed at the time, insisted on attending the funeral.

Though his doctors advised against it, Dr. Lieberman said Mr. Ali went, saying it was the right thing to do. Mr. Lieberman said this exemplified who Mr. Ali was as a person.

Mr. Shavers, who fought Mr. Ali in a 15-round fight in 1977 at Madison Square Garden, said he regarded Mr. Ali as a special friend.

“Ali had the kindest heart I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Shavers aid. “He hit a lot of people, I was one of them, but he was a good, good person.”

Though a native of Louisville, Kentucky, Mr. Ali made a home in the Valley, living in the Town of Paradise Valley later in his life. His impact can be felt throughout the Valley.

In 1994, Mr. Ali teamed with Jimmy Walker, a Valley businessman, to create Celebrity Fight Night. This annual black tie event has raised $86 million over 24 years to benefit the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

Mr. Walker said he had been pushing for Phoenix to name a street after Mr. Ali for nearly seven years. The Phoenix City Council approved the name change at its Nov. 14, 2018 meeting.

Mr. Walker recounted how Phoenix became Mr. Ali’s adopted home late in his life and he had a love for the Celebrity Fight Night event. With the change, Mr. Walker said he will stop taking Thomas Road to get to the Parkinson Center.

“Lonnie (Ali), when I drive down the Muhammad Ali Way, I’m going to have a smile and good memories because of the respect I’ve had for Muhammad Ali,” Mr. Walker said.

“I’ve said it many times but just for the record, there will never be another Muhammad Ali. They don’t make them like him anymore.”

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