Local legacy: Boxing legend Muhammad Ali had many ties to Cleveland

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CLEVELAND, Ohio-- Step inside any boxing ring in Northeast Ohio, and you step close to the legacy of Muhammad Ali.

“He meant a lot to the sport of boxing; he’s the greatest of all time,” said pro boxer and Cleveland Boxing Club owner Omari Braxton, who met Ali in Detroit as a teen.

“Growing up, as a kid, he was someone I looked up to,” he said. “He was someone I always tried to mimic.”

Cavs Forward LeBron James said he, too, looked up to Ali as a champion boxer as a kid, but he grew to respect his accomplishments outside the ring. “When an icon like Muhammad Ali passes away, it’s very emotional. It’s also gratifying to know that one man would sacrifice so much in his individual life knowing it would better the next generation of men and women after him,” James said in a press conference Saturday. “For an athlete like myself today, without Muhammad Ali, I wouldn’t be sitting up here talking in front of you guys.”

Ali visited Cleveland several times throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including a key moment that epitomizes the champion boxer’s legacy of leadership in the civil rights movement and courage to stand up for his beliefs.

Exactly 49 years ago, on June 4, 1967, Ali was central to the “Ali Summit” in Cleveland. Jim Brown arranged the meeting of African American sports greats and civic leaders, regarding Ali’s opposition to fighting in Vietnam. The group then participated in a press conference lending support to Ali’s decision.

Retired Fox 8 sports reporter Dan Coughlin recalled spending an afternoon with Ali in Cleveland in the mid-60s.

“I drove him to his hotel on East 55th. The Majestic Hotel. Across the street was a Junior High School. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon we arrived, and the next thing I know, Ali is standing in the middle of East 55th Street leading 1,000 to 1,500 students in chants of, ‘Who's the greatest? You're the greatest!’”

In the 1970s, Ali teamed up with Cleveland boxing promoter Don King.

"Muhammad Ali is a legend in his time, but he's a fighter for the people. He's always said never forget where you come from and stand up for what you believe in,” King said.

Ali faced off against Chuck Weppner in March of 1975 at the Richfield Coliseum. Ali won big in a lopsided fight.

However, Ali’s legacy extends far beyond the boxing realm. “He was the people's champion,” Braxton said.

Much more on Muhammad Ali here.