Muhammad Ali remembered with tears, laughs at memorial service


Thousands from around the world gathered at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky on Friday to say a final farewell to Muhammad Ali.

After Ali died aged 74 a week ago, a who's who of dignitaries, celebrities and athletes joined fans from across the globe and from the neighbourhood where the American icon - born Cassius Marcellus Clay - grew up to pack the arena for the public memorial, while thousands more watched on a giant screen in the city of Louisville erected nearby. 

A public traditional Muslim Janazah prayer service was held on Thursday as part of Ali's detailed funeral plans he scripted in a document those close to him refer to as "The Book".

A family funeral service on Friday morning was followed by a procession through Louisville on streets lined by adorning fans chanting Ali's name.

Louisville police estimated upwards of 100,000 fans turned out for the 20-mile procession. The motorcade of cars finished its trip at the Cave Hill Cemetery to lay Ali's body to rest.

Several speakers of all religious backgrounds began the memorial, describing how Ali embodied the struggle and conviction of each of them. Even in death, Ali brought together those from all religious, racial and political backgrounds the same way he did as a boxing and cultural icon.

Ali's wife of 30 years, Lonnie, was the first of nine eulogists and highlighted Ali's desire to have a number of religions represented during the celebration of his life.

"When his mother died, he organized for multiple faiths to be represented at her funeral and wanted the same for himself," Lonnie said. "Muhammad was not one to give up on the power of understanding, the boundless possibilities of love and the strength of our diversity. He counted among his friends people of all political persuasions, saw truth in all faiths and the nobility of all races as witnessed here today."

Actor/comedian Billy Crystal provided a lighter eulogy in honour of Ali, reminiscent of his "15 Rounds" tribute to the icon in 1979. He had the crowd roaring with laughter as he re-enacted some of that comedic act, and recounted some of his most memorable encounters with Ali. But he also had some sombre moments of reflection.

"I laboured to come up with a way to describe the legend," Crystal said. "He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created out of thin air by Mother Nature. A fantastic combination of power and beauty.

"We've seen still photographs of lightning bolts 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. Muhammad Ali struck us in middle of America's darkest night ... his power toppled the mightiest of foes, and his intense light shined on America and we were able to see clearly injustice, inequality, poverty, pride, self-realization, courage, laughter, love, joy and religious freedom."

As the final eulogist, former President Bill Clinton, who awarded Ali the Presidential Citizen Medal in 2001, spoke to Ali's faith and courage.

He specifically remembered the famous incident in which Ali, by then suffering from Parkinson's disease, lit the Olympic flame to open the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

"I'll never forget it," Clinton said. "I was sitting there in Atlanta. By then we knew each other and I felt I had some sense of what he was living with [Parkinson's disease]. I was still weeping like a baby, seeing his hands shake, seeing his legs shake but knowing, by God, he was going to make those last few steps. No matter what it took the flame would be lit, the fight would be won."

Ali, born in 1942, began boxing at the age of 12. Two years later, he was a Golden Gloves novice champion as a light heavyweight. He won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions and the Amateur Athletic Union's national title for the light-heavyweight division at the age of 17.

The 6-3 fighter won Olympic gold in Rome in 1960 and turned pro a year later. It took him just four years to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, knocking out Sonny Liston in 1964.

Ali remains the only three-time lineal heavyweight champ -- capturing titles in 1964, 1974 and 1978. Of his 56 victories, 37 were by knockout. He retired in 1981 and was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1984 at age 42.