Muhammad Ali grew up near her, now Atlantan holds his memory close

His public appearances had dwindled to a precious few, his fiercely funny voice had all but been silenced for years. Yet for many people, Muhammad Ali’s death on Friday felt like the loss of a familiar, if somewhat larger than life friend.

Especially for Betty Hancock.

"He had that Louisville twang, that Louisville charm," said Hancock, a retired Delta flight attendant who lives in southwest Atlanta. "I felt like I knew him, without knowing him, exactly."

She came way closer than most of us ever did. Fifteen blocks, in fact. That’s how nearby in Louisville that Cassius Clay, as he was then known, had grown up to where she lived. Clay was 10 years older than Hancock, so she mostly started hearing about him as he was becoming famous — first by winning an Olympic gold medal in boxing at a precociously young 18 and then by upsetting Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship when he was just 22.

Hearing about him. And from him.

Long before he was known as “The Greatest,” Ali had been dubbed the “Louisville Lip” for his dazzling verbal footwork outside the ring.

“Personally, we were taught as youngsters not to brag,” Hancock chuckled. “He used to brag and boast so much, I used to just be on pins and needles when he fought. I’d think, ‘He’s got to back this up, why is he saying this?

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“‘He’s going to make Joe Frazier so mad he’s really going to hurt him!’”

Mostly, though, Ali made her proud. For “putting Louisville on the map.” And for giving voice to what so many less listened-to people there and elsewhere were feeling.

“The things he did transcended boxing,” Hancock said about Ali, who spoke out about racial injustice and faith and was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing titles for refusing to fight in Vietnam for religious reasons. “He talked the talk, but then he walked the walk. We could not have had a better representative as a black person from Louisville, Kentucky at that time.”

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali's conviction in 1971. Even before then, he returned to the ring in Atlanta. A couple of times during big fights, Hancock laughingly recalled, she was working a flight.

“It was hard for me to work, I was always knocking on the cockpit door,” she said of those pre-internet/Wi-Fi days when air traffic control was pretty much a plane’s only source of news. “The guys in the cockpit would let me know what was going on (in Ali’s fights).”

Now flash forward some four decades to Ali’s death last week in an all-wired, all-news all-the-time world. On Monday, Hancock said she’d been watching live TV shots of people placing flowers and tribute messages outside the Muhammad Ali Center in her hometown. And also exchanging texts with family members, including about who might be attending Friday’s public funeral in Louisville.

Hancock didn’t know Monday if she’d be going. But it’s not like she’d ever really lost sight of her hometown hero.

“He meant so much to us, we always kept up with him,” Hancock said. “He gave me courage. To do your best and just stand up for what you believe in.”