LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Muhammad Ali made his final journey through his hometown Friday – past the little pink house where he grew up and the museum that bears his name – as an estimated 100,000 mourners along the route pumped their fists and chanted, “Ali! Ali!” for the former heavyweight champion of the world known simply as The Greatest.
A hearse bearing Ali’s cherry-red casket, draped in an Islamic tapestry, arrived at Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery in a long line of black limousines after a 19-mile drive via Muhammad Ali Boulevard that was both sombre and exuberant.
“He stood up for himself and for us, even when it wasn’t popular,” said Ashia Powell, waiting at a railing for the hearse to pass by on an interstate highway below.
A private graveside service was held in the afternoon, and was followed later in the day by a grand memorial service at a sports arena packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal.
As the interfaith service got underway, the crowd of up to 15,000 burst into applause and chanted, “Ali! Ali!” when a Muslim religious leader welcomed the audience to “the home of the people’s champ.”
Ali, the most magnetic and controversial athlete of the 20th century, died last Friday at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. The brash and outspoken athlete transcended sports to become a powerful source of black pride and a symbol of professional excellence recognized around the world.
The casket was loaded into a hearse outside a funeral home as a group of pallbearers that included former boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and actor Will Smith filed out, along with Ali’s nine children, his widow, two of his ex-wives and other family members.
As the limousines rolled past on the way to the cemetery, fans chanted like spectators at one of his fights, stood on cars, held up cellphones 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 pull some of them off to see the road.
Others fell silent and looked on reverently as the champ went by.
“To me, he was a legend to this city and an example to people. I’m just glad to be part of this history, of saying goodbye,” said Takeisha Benedict, wearing an orange “I Am Ali” T-shirt. “Opening it up and allowing us to be part of it, we’re so appreciative.”
Among the hundreds gathered outside the funeral home was Mike Stallings, of Louisville, who brought his two young sons to bid farewell to the sports legend who grew up in Louisville as Cassius Clay.
“I’ve been crying all week,” he said. “As big as he was he never looked down on people. He always mingled among the crowds.”
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.
A traditional Muslim funeral service was held Thursday, with an estimated 6,000 admirers arriving from all over the world.
Among the scheduled speakers at Friday’s memorial at the KFC Yum! Center were Clinton, Crystal and TV journalist Bryant Gumbel. Those in attendance also included actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, director Spike Lee, boxing promoter Don King and soccer star David Beckham.
Ali himself decided years ago that his funeral would be open to ordinary fans, not just VIPs. As a result, thousands of free tickets were made available and were snatched up within an hour.
Louisville is accustomed to being in the limelight each May during the Kentucky Derby. But the send-off for the three-time heavyweight champion and global ambassador for international understanding represented one of the city’s most historic events.
“We’ve all been dreading the passing of the champ, but at the same time we knew ultimately it would come,” Mayor Greg Fischer said. “It was selfish for us to think that we could hold on to him forever. Our job now, as a city, is to send him off with the class and dignity and respect that he deserves.”
President Barack Obama was unable to make the trip because of his daughter Malia’s high school graduation. Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser, planned to read a letter from Obama at the service.
Rumours that Donald Trump would attend were quashed Friday morning when Gunnell said the Republican presidential candidate called Ali’s wife, Lonnie, to inform her that he was unable to make it.
Tyson was added at the last moment to the list of pallbearers. Gunnell said that Tyson was upset about Ali’s death and wasn’t sure if he could handle the memorial, but ended up catching a late flight.
People gathered early in the day outside Ali’s boyhood home, which was decorated with balloons, flags, flowers and posters. Fans took photos of themselves in front of the house. Some people staked out their places nearby with lawn chairs.
The Ali Center stopped charging admission. A sightseeing company began tours of Ali’s path through the city. Businesses printed his quotes across their billboards. City buses flashed “Ali _ The Greatest” in orange lights. A downtown bridge will be illuminated the rest of the week in red and gold: red for his boxing gloves, gold for his Olympic medal.
“Everybody feels a sense of loss with Ali’s passing,” said Mustafa Abdush-Shakur, who travelled from Connecticut. “But there’s no need to be sad for him. We’re all going to make that trip.”