Louisville and the rest of the world said goodbye to The Greatest, showering affection on Muhammad Ali during a fist-pumping funeral procession through the streets of his hometown, followed by a star-studded memorial service where he was eulogised as a fiercely charismatic breaker of racial barriers.
“He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty,” comedian Billy Crystal said on Friday in an address that had the crowd of about 15,000 laughing.
The more than three-hour memorial capped nearly a full day of mourning in Louisville for Ali, the boxing great who died last week at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Earlier in the day, an estimated 100,000 people holding signs and chanting “Ali! Ali!” lined the streets as a hearse carrying the boxing great’s cherry-red casket made its way past his childhood home to Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, where a private burial service was held for the three-time heavyweight champion of the world.
The public memorial at the KFC Yum! Center was packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton, former NFL great Jim Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, soccer star David Beckham, Whoopi Goldberg and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“Besides being a lot of fun to be around and basically a universal soldier for our common humanity, I will always think of Muhammad as a truly free man of faith,” said former US President Bill Clinton.
Ali was saluted as a brash, self-confident and fearless man of principle, someone who went from one of the most polarizing figures in America to one of the most beloved.
“If Muhammad did not like the rules, he would rewrite them. His religion, his name, his beliefs were his to fashion, no matter what the cost,” said Ali’s wife Lonnie.
Crystal cracked everyone up with his career-making impersonation of a boastful, fast-talking Ali — and his imitation of Ali’s foil, sportscaster Howard Cosell — and rhapsodised about Ali’s charisma, outspokenness and talent in a way that brought the crowd to its feet.
“We’ve seen still photographs of lightning at the moment of impact, ferocious in its strength, magnificent in its elegance. And at the moment of impact, it lights up everything around it so you can see everything clearly,” Crystal said. “Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night.”
He added: “Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves. This brash young man thrilled us, angered us, confused us, challenged us, ultimately became a silent messenger of peace and taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people and not walls.”
Kevin Cosby, the pastor of a Louisville church, told the crowd that Ali “dared to affirm the power and capacity of African-Americans” and infused them with a “sense of somebodiness.” He likened Ali to such racial trailblazers as Jesse Owens, Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, a political activist and editor of Jewish magazine Tikkun, brought the crowd to its feet four times with a fiery speech in which he referred to Ali’s refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War — a stand that cost him his boxing title.
“At the key moment when he had that recognition, he used it to stand up to an immoral war and say, ‘No, I won’t go’,” said Lerner.
“The way to honor him is to be like him today,” added Lerner, railing against anti-Muslim bigotry, drone attacks, the gap between rich and poor and racist policing.
Earlier in the day, Ali’s casket, draped with an Islamic tapestry, was loaded into a hearse outside a funeral home. The pallbearers included former boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and actor Will Smith, who played Ali in the movies. Ali’s nine children, his widow, two of his ex-wives and other family members accompanied the body to the cemetery.
As the long line of black limousines rolled past, fans chanted like spectators at one of his fights, pumped their fists, stood on cars, held up mobile phones and signs, ran alongside the hearse and reached out to touch it. They tossed so many flowers onto the windshield that the driver had to push some of them aside to see the road.
Others fell silent and looked on reverently as the champ went by.
Ali chose the cemetery as his final resting place a decade ago. Its 130,000 graves represent a who’s who of Kentucky, including Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders. Family spokesman Bob Gunnell said he will have a simple headstone, inscribed only “Ali”, in keeping with Islamic tradition.
Ali himself decided years ago that his funeral would be open to ordinary fans, not just VIPs. As a result, thousands of free tickets to the memorial were made available and were snatched up within an hour.
President Barack Obama was unable to make the trip because of his daughter Malia’s high school graduation. But White House advisor Valerie Jarrett read a letter from the President at the service in which Obama said Ali helped give him the audacity to think he could one day be president.
“Muhammad Ali was America. Brash. Defiant. Pioneering. Never tired. Always game to test the odds. He was our most basic freedoms: religion, speech, spirit,” said Obama.