Muhammad Ali feted by the famous and fans in final farewell
LOUISVILLE, KY. – Muhammad Ali was extolled on Friday as a boxer of incomparable grace, a magnetic entertainer and a man of conviction who gave a voice to the oppressed, as a two-day celebration of “The Greatest” came to a rousing end in his Kentucky hometown.
At an emotional memorial service at a Louisville sports arena, former US President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal, Ali’s wife Lonnie and leaders of many of the world’s religious traditions delivered powerful tributes to the man who Clinton called a “universal soldier for our common humanity.”
“He decided at a very young age to write his own life story,” the former president said. “He decided he would never be disempowered.”
Earlier in the day, an estimated 100,000 people came out to honor Ali on a hot and sunny day, chanting his name and throwing flowers along the 23-mile (37-km) funeral procession. At the end of the route, he was laid to rest in a private burial, one week after he died at the age of 74.
At the interfaith service, A-list celebrities and sports stars converged with thousands of ordinary people to hear Ali remembered as a man who went from Olympic gold medal winner in 1960 to three-time world heavyweight champion to an elder statesman suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Ali, who was once scorned for converting to Islam and lost three years of his boxing career for refusing U.S. military service during the Vietnam War, ended up becoming one of the most celebrated Americans in modern history, at home and abroad.
“What does it say of a man, any man, that he can go from being viewed as one of his country’s most polarizing figures to arguably its most beloved?” sportscaster Bryant Gumbel told the service, which was led by Iman Abdul Shakir, one of Ali’s spiritual mentors.
One of his enduring contributions was to restore pride in African Americans after centuries of being denied a sense of “somebody-ness,” said Rev. Kevin Cosby, senior pastor of St. Stephen Church in Louisville.
“Before James Brown said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ Muhammad Ali said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty,’ Cosby said, comparing the boastful boxer to the “Godfather of Soul.” Ali “dared to love black people at a time when black people had a problem loving themselves.”