Historical marker #2592 commemorates the location of the gym where Muhammad Ali was first introduced to boxing. We share stories about our heroes: epic deeds, fantastic feats, and improbable origins. These folktales exist to teach lessons or reinforce the glory or virtue of a figure. Some are complete fabrications other embellishments, blown way out of proportion. Still other folktales are true. The story of how Muhammad Ali began his boxing career is the latter but seems too good to be.
In 1954 a young Muhammed Ali (then Cassius Clay) attended an event at the Louisville Service Club. There he and his friend enjoyed free snacks and treats. When preparing to leave, Ali found that his bike was not where he had parked it. He was directed to the basement gym where he encountered Joe Martin, an off-duty Louisville police officer. Ali informed Martin of his intention to exact physical revenge on the party responsible for the theft of his new, red Schwinn. Martin, who ran the boxing program for the city out of the basement facility, called the Columbia Gym, suggested Ali first learn to fight properly before seeking vengeance.
Joe Martin took a keen interest in Ali’s development as a boxer. Martin’s talent according to Ali was more on the promotional side of the boxing sport. He ran a local television showcase called “Tomorrow’s Champions.” Ali later said that while Martin helped launch his career and opened doors of opportunity to him, Fred Stoner at Grace-Hope (Presbyterian Community Center) in Smoketown taught him how to box. Under Stoner and Martin’s tutelage, Ali went on to win an Olympic light heavyweight gold medal just six years from that fateful day.
The building was originally built as a home for the Knights of Columbus in 1925. However, by 1940 the structure had been vacant for some time. As production of arms and ammunition in the Louisville area ramped up to supply the Allies in World War II and with the increased numbers of US service members training at nearby Fort Knox, the city of Louisville found many young men in particular without wholesome activities in which to engage in while off duty. To address this problem the city decided to help facilitate the purchase and renovation of the structure for use as a gathering and recreation place for service members. The Louisville Service Club was the first such facility of its kind and became a model for similar facilities operated by the United Service Organization (USO) nationwide.
The historic building, now as part of the campus of Spalding University, had the Columbia Gym name reapplied in 2018 to reestablish the connection with Louisville’s history. The University also placed a replica of the red Schwinn bicycle Ali lost there back in 1954 as a further symbol of the historical significance of the structure as well as an inspiration for its students.
The marker reads:
In 1941, the Louisville Service
Club opened in the former Knights
of Columbus and Columbia
Auditorium building. The club
provided weekend housing and
entertainment for service men in
the city in the lead up to US
entry into World War II. The
Columbia Gym was in the basement.
Operated by the city parks dept.,
it provided recreation for youth.
At Columbia Gym, a young Muhammad
Ali, then Cassius Clay, told
Louisville Police Officer Joe
Martin he was going to “whup”
whoever stole his bike. Martin
became Ali’s first trainer. Martin
introduced Ali to regional
audiences through the local boxing
show, “Tomorrow’s Champions,”
and encouraged him to compete in
the 1960 Rome Olympics.
This marker was dedicated on January 16, 2020.