1971: ‘The Greatest’ Comes to Kingston

Muhummad Ali at Keaney Gymnasium in 1971.

From politicians to musicians, athletes to poets, URI has hosted many notable visitors over the years. Thanks to URI’s library archivists for sharing details of this historic visit from the legendary Muhammad Ali.

On April 15, 1971, legendary boxer and activist Muhammad Ali visited URI, holding a press conference at Keaney Gymnasium. The visit occurred just over a month after Ali’s first professional defeat—he lost to Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden—in the ring, and just four days before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Clay v. United States and the question of Ali’s religious objection to participation in the Vietnam War. The court sided with Ali and expanded the exceptions for conscientious objectors to be excepted from the draft.

Reporting on Ali’s appearance in The Good 5 Cent Cigar (April 21, 1971), Steve Cheslow ’72 wrote, “Ali now speaks in a subdued tone; but his words hit the crowds just as lightning-quick jabs hit his ring opponents. […] His charisma, left me more impressed than I had been after any of his ring exploits.” •

—Karen Walton Morse

Karen Walton Morse is an associate professor and director of distinctive collections for URI’s University Libraries.

Photos: Courtesy URI University Archives

4 comments

  1. Ali’s tour bus (he hated to fly) stopped in front of the student union the afternoon previous to his speech at KeanyGym. He gets out of the bus and chats us up. We are sitting on the wall drinking coffee and skipping class. We were shocked and excited to see him. He was funny and charismatic. Somebody (not me )brought up the Frazier fight and he faked throwing left jabs at the offender. It was a great spontaneous moment. After about 10 minutes he was off to wherever.

  2. “The Purpose of Life” and being remembered as more than a boxer was Ali’s delivery that night. I was 13 years old, there with my big brother. We got an autographed photo at the end that Ali signed with, as he called it, “a real ink pen!” I recall also an audience member asking what he would do if a person tried to pick a fight with him in the street, he said “First of all, he would have to be CRAZY!” He was more than a boxer.

  3. I had the opportunity to spend the day with him and bring him to the ACI, where he spoke to the inmates. As the Supreme Court reviewed his case, he was concerned about prison life.
    On the way back to campus, he was driving the bus and stopped to pick up children on I-95 hitchhiking. He wanted to take them to their house in Coventry which would have made him late for the URI talk. We negotiated a safe place to drop them off.

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