In a funeral he planned years ago, Muhammad Ali will be coming home as a “citizen of the world” when he is buried Friday in Louisville.
A procession will carry his body down an avenue that bears his name, through his boyhood neighbourhood and down Broadway, the scene of the parade that honoured the brash young man — then known as Cassius Clay — for his gold medal at the 1960 Olympics.
Funeral details were outlined by family spokesman Bob Gunnell at a news conference Saturday in Scottsdale, Ariz., not far from Ali’s home in his final years.
The family “certainly believes that Muhammad was a citizen of the world … and they know that the world grieves with him,” Gunnell said.
Family members will accompany Ali’s remains to Louisville within the next two days. A private funeral ceremony will be held Thursday.
After the Friday procession, a memorial service open to everyone will be held at Louisville’s KFC YUM! Center. The list of eulogists was not complete, but will include former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal — who famously has done a masterful impression of Ali — and sports television host Bryant Gumbel.
The ceremony will be led by an imam in the Muslim tradition but will include representatives of other faiths. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch will represent Mormons.
“Muhammad Ali was clearly the people’s champion,” Gunnell said, “and the celebration will reflect his devotion to people of all races, religions and backgrounds.”
Ali’s wife, Lonnie, and his children had 24 hours to say goodbye to him, Gunnell said.
The 74-year-old boxing great died at 9:10 p.m. MT Friday, the spokesman said, of “septic shock due to unspecified natural causes” after three decades of Parkinson’s disease.
Tributes pour in
In Louisville, not even pouring rain Saturday could stop the flood of tributes for “The Greatest.”
In the three-time heavyweight champion’s old neighbourhood, brother Rahaman Ali stood in a small house on Grand Avenue and dabbed his eyes as he shook hand after hand. The visitors had come from as far away as Georgia and as near as down the street.
“God bless you all,” the 72-year-old Rahaman said to each.
Ali’s death held special meaning in Louisville, where he was the city’s favourite son.
“He was one of the most honourable, kindest men to live on this planet,” his brother said while greeting mourners at their childhood home, recently renovated and turned into a museum.
Cars lined both sides of the Louisville street where Ali grew up. The guests piled flowers and boxing gloves around the marker designating it a historical site. They were young and old, black and white, friends and fans.
Another makeshift memorial grew outside the Muhammad Ali Center downtown, a museum built in tribute to Ali’s core values: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, charity, spirituality.
“Muhammad Ali belongs to the world,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said at a memorial service outside Metro Hall. “But he only has one hometown.”
Rahaman recalled what Ali was like as a boy named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., long before he became the most famous man in the world, the Louisville Lip, celebrated as much for his grace and his words as his lightning-fast feet and knockout punch.
In their little pink house in Louisville’s west end, the brothers liked to wrestle and play cards and shoot hoops.
“He was a really sweet, kind, loving, giving, affectionate, wonderful person,” Rahaman said, wearing a cap that read “Ali,” the last letter formed by the silhouette of a boxer ready to pounce.
Ali’s early life
When he was 12 years old, Ali had a bicycle that was stolen and he told a police officer he wanted to “whoop” whoever took it, Fischer said at the memorial service. The officer told him he’d have to learn how to box first.
Daniel Wilson was one year behind Ali at Central High School and remembered he was so committed to his conditioning that he didn’t get on the school bus like everybody else. Instead, he ran along beside it, five kilometres all the way to school each morning.
“The kids on the bus would be laughing and Ali would be laughing too,” he recalled at the Grand Avenue home.
Ruby Hyde arrived at the memorial holding an old black-and-white framed photo of a young Ali. She’d been a water girl at his amateur bouts as a teenager in Louisville, and seen even then that there was something special, something cerebral, about the way he fought. Years later, he came back to the old neighbourhood as a heavyweight champ, driving a Cadillac with the top down.
“All the kids jumped in and he rode them around the block,” she remembered.
He never forgot where he came from, she said.
“He’s done so much for Louisville. He’s given us so much,” said Kitt Liston, who as girl growing up in Louisville admired Ali’s unblinking fight for justice and peace. “He’s truly a native son. He’s ours.”
Liston’s voice trembled as she recounted running into him at a baseball game a few years ago.
“I got to tell him how much I cared about him. He put that big ol’ paw out and just shook my hand,” she said. “He just had time for everybody.”
The mayor ordered the city’s flags at half-staff.
Outside Metro Hall, Fischer pointed west, toward Ali’s childhood home, about five kilometres away in one of the city’s poorest zip codes.
“There can only be one Muhammad Ali, but his journey from Grand Avenue to global icon serves as a reminder that there are young people with the potential for greatness in the houses and neighbourhoods all over our city, our nation, our world,” he said.
Fischer told mourners to teach all children Ali’s legacy: that a kid from Kentucky can grow up to be “The Greatest.”
“That’s how we become champions,” he said. “Muhammad Ali has shown us the way.”
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