Spalding renames athletic building ‘Columbia Gym,’ where Ali learned to box 

Steve Jones

In honoring the location on its campus where legendary heavyweight champion and humanitarian icon Muhammad Ali first learned to box in 1954, Spalding University announced that it has officially changed the name of its athletic and activities building back to Columbia Gym.

The announcement comes on Wednesday, Jan. 17, which would have been the Louisville native Ali’s 76th birthday.

Spalding President Tori Murden McClure said in 2016 that the board of trustees planned to change the name of the building at 824 S. Fourth Street from the Spalding University Center to Columbia Gym. That had been the name of the former boxing gym located in the lower level of the building that was run by Louisville police officer Joe Martin, who became Ali’s first trainer.

In a tale that has become a key piece of Louisville history, 12-year-old Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, attended a Louisville Service Club event at the building and parked his new red Schwinn bicycle outside. When he came back out, the bike had been stolen. An angry Clay informed Martin about the theft and told him that he planned to “whup” whoever took the bike.

Martin told Clay that before he tried to do that, he better learn to fight first, leading him to start training in the Columbia Gym and begin a storied amateur career.

Not long after Ali’s death in 2016, Spalding hung a replica of Ali’s red bicycle over the front entrance of the building to serve as a tribute to Ali and Martin’s first encounter.

“As Spalding continues its legacy of service and compassion, the red bike story and Columbia Gym remind us of Muhammad Ali’s triumphant career in and out of the ring,” McClure said. “On this, the Champ’s birthday, may we all look inward and seek our role in making the world a better place, following his remarkable example.”

The building houses the NCAA Division III Golden Eagles’ home basketball and volleyball court, a 2,400-seat venue that continues to be called Derek Smith Gymnasium. The university’s athletic offices and student fitness center, lounge and health clinic are in the lower level where Martin’s Columbia Gym once was. There is also a ballroom and auditorium in the building.

A series of photo panels have been recently placed on the wall in the lower level of the building that detail Ali’s history there and with Spalding, and photos and inspirational quotes from Ali help decorate the facility.

“Our students are motivated daily by the history that began here with the red bike story,” Spalding athletic director Roger Burkman said. “It should inspire us all to not only compete at our highest level but also to serve others at an equally high level.”

Spalding acquired the building years after Ali trained there, but he had other ties to the school. As a teenager, he worked across the street from Columbia Gym in Spalding’s library, and he maintained a lifelong friendship with members of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who ran the college.

In addition, McClure is an Ali family friend and was an early employee of the Muhammad Ali Center. A year ago on Ali’s birthday, Spalding announced the creation of the Muhammad Ali Scholars program, which awards about $1.2 million of need-based scholarships every year.The Ali Scholarship provides traditional, first-year students up to $5,000 per year of assistance to attend the school. It’s renewable for up to $20,000 over four years.

Related: Spalding’s official athletics website

Photo panels displaying the history of Muhammad Ali's red bike story and his ties to Spalding.
A series of photo panels in the lower level of Columbia Gym detail Muhammad Ali’s famous red bike story and his ties to Spalding.