Long before he was the bombastic heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali was a neighborhood babysitter who got paid in bologna and cheese sandwiches.
Ali held the far less glorious position when he was a quick-witted teenager named Cassius Clay growing up in a mostly black neighborhood in west Louisville.
“The children liked him because they said he was funny,” said Lawrence Montgomery, who moved next door to the Ali family with his wife Violet in 1952.
“He was always telling jokes and all.”
The Montgomerys went on to have three kids — Lawrence Jr., Linda and Karen — all of whom came to adore the boxing-obsessed teenager.
Ali employed a clever tactic whenever a match was on TV while he was taking care of the Montgomery kids.
“He would say to not say a word and would feed them cereal so they would sit still,” Lawrence Montgomery, 81, recalled.
Final photos of boxing legend Muhammad Ali
“He would have them sit there on the couch until the match was over.”
When he wasn’t telling jokes, Ali was often dazzling the kids with his array of magic tricks. The kids referred to him by his nickname — GG, short for Golden Gloves, the name of the boxing club Ali joined in his hometown.
“He always loved children,” Violet Montgomery, 83, said. “They just always loved being around him.”
As he entered his late teens, Ali was still a kid at heart — but he had the drive of an adult seeking greatness, the Montgomerys said.
Ali would wake up early and resist riding the bus to Central High School.
Instead, he would run alongside it — a route that spanned more than eight miles.
“I just think [his drive] came from within,” Violet Montgomery said. “I don’t think he had any other motivation other than himself to do what he did.”
The Montgomerys stayed in touch with Ali as he ruled over professional boxing and then turned into a global ambassador.
In 1984, Ali sent Lawrence a signed postcard showing a picture of the boxer carrying the Olympic torch through Louisville. “My first boss,” it read.