Muhammad Ali and Las Vegas are as intertwined as Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees. Which is to say you can’t tell the story of one without the other.
Although only seven of Ali’s 61 professional fights took place in Las Vegas, several were historic in nature and each helped propel a glittering desert gambling town into the Boxing Capital of the World. So it’s only fitting that an exhibition celebrating Ali’s life and legacy would find a home here.
I Am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali, which begins a six-month run at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art on March 31, will feature artifacts from the late champion’s legendary career, along with family photos, stories shared by his closest friends and video footage from some of his most memorable fights.
More than just a tribute to Ali’s boxing exploits, the exhibit will provide insight into the humanitarian and social achievements that helped make Ali a global icon. It includes a detailed journey through the six core principles through which Ali lived his life: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.
“It’s something different for us, but that’s what we like,” says Tarissa Tiberti, the gallery’s executive director, who worked in concert with Muhammad Ali Enterprises to stage the exhibition. “It just seemed fitting to celebrate and share the life of an athlete who is so widely appreciated throughout the world.”
Among more than 30 items and eight videos set to be displayed in BGFA’s first-ever sports-related exhibit: boxing robes; torches and medals from the 1960 Rome Olympics; autographed gloves and shorts Ali once gave to Elvis Presley; and championship rings from 1974 and ’78.
The latter ring was awarded to Ali after he defeated Leon Spinks in New Orleans in September 1978—seven months after Ali lost his title to the little-known Spinks in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, at what was then known as the Las Vegas Hilton.
After winning the rematch, Ali announced his retirement, but two years later he returned to the ring in Las Vegas to face undefeated heavyweight champ Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace. It was a brutal fight in which Ali was overmatched by a younger, stronger opponent, with Ali’s corner throwing in the towel after the 10th round.
Prior to the losses to Spinks and Holmes, however, Ali enjoyed nothing but success in Las Vegas, winning five consecutive fights at the Convention Center from 1961 to 1975. In the first of those bouts, a 19-year-old Ali—then known as Cassius Clay—earned a 10-round victory over Duke Sabedong in just his seventh pro fight.
When Ali next returned to the Convention Center in November 1965, he did so as a world champion, a title he successfully defended with a 12th-round knockout of the legendary Floyd Patterson.
Ali’s 5-2 record in Las Vegas is part of his overall mark of 56-5, which included 37 knockouts. As remarkable as Ali’s 21-year career was, however, it only partially defines his life—something Tiberti says visitors will better appreciate upon touring I Am the Greatest.
“In terms of where we are in the world today—not only the political climate, but everything—I think it’s important to look at how somebody came to greatness,” Tiberti says. “Maybe a younger person who visits the exhibit can be inspired by his dedication and his life. And maybe somebody else learns more about the humanitarian in Ali and can be inspired that way.”