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How South Florida made Ali the greatest

A new movie and our rare photos show how Miami molded Muhammad Ali into a worldwide legend.

Muhammad Ali’s eyes are framed in the convertible’s rearview mirror as he drives over the MacArthur Causeway toward Miami Beach.

The original South Beach celebrity’s personality shines through, confident and cool, as ocean and palm trees and Jimi Hendrix play in the background.

A new film, “I Am Ali” — with rare footage and never-heard family audio tapes — rekindles the connection Ali had with South Florida.

“That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie,” filmmaker Clare Lewins said from her home in London. “He looks really cool. … You immediately want to be in Miami in the ‘60s. When we’re in Miami in the film, you know you’re in Miami.”

And that led us to unearth more than 30 classic photos of Ali, dating back to the early ’60s, that were shot by photographers for The Palm Beach Post and its defunct sister paper, The Miami News. These images, showing Ali bragging, boxing, and being part of the community, chronicle his deep roots here.

The cities of Miami and Miami Beach are more than where Muhammad Ali trained and lived at the beginning of his career.

Miami is where he converted to Islam. Where, sitting on his lawn at his Miami bungalow on Northwest 46th Street, he famously opposed being drafted into the Vietnam war. Where he took the 5th Street Gym from boxing-famous to a place where the Beatles would see the champ in action.

It’s where he stepped into the ring as the braggart Cassius Clay to face the overwhelming favorite Sonny Liston and emerged the heavyweight champion and cultural phenomenon Muhammad Ali.

“Ali came to Miami as a nobody,” said his famous fight doctor, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, from his home in Miami, “and he grew into a mega hero.”

Today, marks 40 years since the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali’s famous defeat of heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kenya.

But when he came to Miami in 1963, he was a little-known commodity who had won gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics as a light heavyweight. He was looking for a trainer.

He found him at the 5th Street Gym. Angelo Dundee helped to form Ali’s career as much as Ali raised him into the national spotlight.

“He made Angelo famous, but Angelo made him a champion,” Pacheco recalled.

Miami was by no means easy, especially for an African-American man in the 1960s.

The city was starkly segregated, and Ali lived in Overtown while only running or driving over the bridge to train on South Beach.

He was a fixture, running on the beach and over the causeway. And it led to an infamous incident, captured in “I Am Ali,” when he was stopped by a Miami Beach police officer, who called to make sure he was one of Dundee’s fighters. Back then, African-Americans needed approved identification to cross into parts of Miami Beach.

“Yeah, that’s Cassius Clay,” Dundee told him, “and he’s going to be the heavyweight champion of the world.”

Some have argued that Clay, who was born in Louisville, would not have become Ali without Miami. Living in this still-segregated South where many African-Americans were making strides in civil rights molded his thinking.

“It was segregated enough that it could radicalize a young man like Cassius Clay,” said filmmaker Gaspar Gonzalez, whose 2008 documentary, “Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami,” highlights those ties. “At the same time, Miami Beach was cosmopolitan enough that it provided certain freedoms where he could re-invent himself.”

Memories of Ali in Miami run deep.

Las Vegas boxing commentator and interviewer James “Smitty” Smith, a Miami Carol City High graduate, grew up idolizing Ali.

He remembers going to the 5th Street Gym to meet him. The champ took him upstairs to watch him train. Smith went home with his jacket signed by Muhammad Ali and his career path defined.

“I camped out in Miami Beach waiting for him,” Smith said. “Soon as he saw me, he patted me on the head and took me upstairs to the gym. He asked me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘I want to be on TV like Johnny Carson.’ He had just been on Johnny Carson. And he said, ‘You will end up on TV, and you will have your own show, because you’re just like me: You never shut up.’”

To make the new movie, “I Am Ali,” Lewins, a BBC documentarian, got unprecedented access to Ali’s archive of personal audio journals. She uses those as a narrative through-line to tell the story of how Ali made his name in Miami before going on to international iconic status.

“It seems to be a time in his life when he felt very settled,” Lewins said. “He could train by the beach, drenched in sunshine.”

The biggest salvo in Ali’s career came in that first championship bout against Liston.

He had mocked Liston endlessly because he had heard from a fellow fighter that was the way to unhinge Liston.

“Ain’t he ugly? He’s too ugly to be the world’s champ. The world’s champ should be pretty like me,” a 22-year-old Clay said leading up to the fight.

Pacheco was in his corner as he watched Ali pound Liston mercilessly.

“He wanted to beat the (life) out of him,” Pacheco remembers.

And in the seventh round no one could believe it when Liston failed to answer the bell. No defending heavyweight champion in more than 40 years had ever quit from his stool.

“For Liston, who was such a commanding presence, to quit — to quit! — it was such an amazing thing,” Pacheco remembers.

Ali ran to press row at the Miami Auditorium and yelled to the writers, “Eat your words!”

“I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned 22 years old. I must be the greatest!” he said in the post-fight interview. “I shook up the world!”

No one in Miami or in the rest of the boxing world could disagree.

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