A Final Goodbye To 'The Greatest'
The world paid its respects to the legendary Muhammad Ali, whose influence went far beyond the boxing ring
Copyright 2016: The Celebrity Front Page. Entertainment Information in Chicago. All rights reserved.
THE world said a final goodbye to Muhammad Ali in a touching memorial service that was loudly punctuated with spontaneous chants of “Ali,” “Ali,” “Ali” from the thousands of attendees at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.
During the 3½ -hour ceremony, Ali’s fans, family, friends and a collection of clerics from the Muslim, Catholic, Christian, Jewish and Buddhist faiths were on a roller coaster ride of emotions, evidenced by tears at one moment and laughter the next as speakers reflected on the spectacular life of the three-time heavyweight champion and global icon who was simply known around the world as “The Greatest.” He captivated us with his boxing skills, wit and showmanship, and won our respect and admiration with his uncompromising convictions and a display of humanity that was the foundation of his efforts to make the world a better place. An advocate for inclusiveness, unity and peace, he often said, “I’m just trying to get into heaven.”
Throughout the memorial service, an array of speakers shared personal stories about the Ali they knew, and amazingly, one after another talked about Ali the man, not the boxer–-how he treated people, how ordinary he could be, how gracious he was, how he lifted up the downtrodden, how he had used his influence to right what he saw as wrong. They drew the picture of a man who was a compassionate humanitarian, peacemaker, civil rights activist and goodwill ambassador. “In the end, 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 President Bill Clinton. “Being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life. But being free he realized that life was still open to choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that have brought us all here today in honor and love.”
Among those who had come were a number of celebrities, including athletes, TV and movie stars, politicians and boxing’s elite. Sprinkled throughout the audience were Will Smith (who was a pallbearer), Don King, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Whoopi Goldberg, Spike Lee, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Holly Robinson Peete, David Beckham, Larry Holmes, Bernard Hopkins, Matt Lauer, Bryant Gumbel, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Common, Jada Pinkett Smith, Ray Lewis and Riddick Bowe. President Barack Obama, attending his daughter Malia’s high school graduation, was unable to attend, but White House adviser Valerie Jarrett read a letter from the president, describing Ali as “brash, defiant, pioneering” and one who was instrumental in Obama’s audacity to believe he could one day become president.
Like Clinton, actor and comedian Billy Crystal was one of the people Ali had designated years ago to be a part of the services on the day he said goodbye to the world. Crystal, whom Ali called “little brother,” said he had labored to adequately describe his friend of 42 years then he began a one-of-a-kind description. “He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty,” Crystal said. “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 the middle of America’s darkest night, in the heart of its most threatening gathering storm. 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 for all. Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves. This brash young man who thrilled us, angered us, confused and challenged us, ultimately became a silent messenger of peace, who taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls."
"When we rolled through the streets of the city today [as part of the funeral procession], I witnessed something I've never, ever witnessed in my life, and I don't think I will ever witness again. I witnessed the power of sainthood."
–– Imam Zaid Shakir
Thousands of fans lined the funeral procession route to pay their last respects to Muhammad Ali, who touched the lives of millions around the world.
Lonnie Ali was joined by a succession of speakers who reflected on Ali's life, including former President Bill Clinton, (below, left) actor/comedian Billy Crystal, Imam Zaid Shakir (the event's moderator) and broadcaster Bryant Gumbel.
Chief Sidney Hill of the Onondaga Nation, and Buddhists Venerable Utsumi and Sister Denise Laffan were representative of the memorial's diversity.
Prior to the beginning of the memorial service, the funeral procession for Ali took him past his boyhood home along a 19-mile stretch through the city of Louisville and on to his final resting place at Cave Hill Cemetery. Before sunrise, thousands of fans had lined the streets, securing positions that would allow them to say goodbye to “The Champ” as the procession passed by. Energetic fans along the route wore a sea of T-shirts emblazoned with Ali’s image, while others waved photographs from various times in his life, and handwritten placards and banners could be seen protruding above the crowd proclaiming “I Am Ali,” “He’s Still Pretty,” “The Greatest,” "We Love You Muhammad" and some with a simple “Thank You.” Some admirers even ran briefly alongside the slow-moving procession and tossed flowers onto the hood and windshield of the hearse that carried Ali’s body.
Back at the KFC Yum! Center, where more than 15,000 had filled the arena (and thousands others watched on a big screen outside), moderator Imam Zaid Shakir had to limit the frequent outbursts of “Ali,” “Ali,” “Ali” in an effort to remain on a timely schedule that featured a long list of speakers, including Ali’s widow, Lonnie. In one of the highlights among several highlights during the day, Ali's wife since November 19, 1986, displayed incredible poise and composure as she acknowledged the condolences from millions of supporters before reflecting on Ali’s life and how his legacy will continue to influence generations to come. “Some years ago during his long struggle with Parkinson’s, Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world,” Lonnie said. “In effect he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice, that he grew up in segregation and during his early life he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence.”
"From Louisville emerged a silver-tongued poet who took the ethos of somebodiness to unheard of heights. Before James Brown said 'I'm Black and I'm proud,' Muhammad Ali said 'I'm Black and I'm pretty.' He dared to love Black people at a time when Black people had a problem loving themselves."
–– Dr. Rev. Kevin W. Cosby
Senior Pastor at St. Stephen Church, Louisville
“Muhammad Ali was the heart of this city; the living, breathing embodiment of the greatest that we can be. He was our heart, and that heart beats here still."
–– Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport
Senior Rabbi, The Temple in Louisville
"Only once in a 1,000 years of so do we get to hear a Mozart, or see a Picasso, read a Shakespeare. Ali was one of them, and yet at his heart he was still a kid from Louisville who ran with the gods and walked with the crippled, and smiled at the foolishness of it all. He is gone, but he will never die. He was my big brother."
–– Actor/comedian Billy Crystal
After the memorial service, Lonnie Ali greeted supporters at a reception that was attended by (below) the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, activist and football Hall of Famer Jim Brown, and (bottom) actor Kris Kristofferson, actress Holly Robinson Peete and former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes.
As Clinton said, Ali wrote his own life story, deciding early on that he would never be “disempowered.” In an era when refusing to follow the path of conformity produced severe consequences, Ali had the resolve and strength to embrace his principles and his values in the face of possible life-changing adversity, adversity that threatened to strip him of everything he had accomplished. But the world loved him because he showed everyone the power of conviction, how one man’s moral integrity can make a difference. Upon his refusal to being inducted into the U.S. Army, he said: “Whatever the punishment, whatever the persecution for standing up for my religious beliefs, even if it means facing machinegun fire that day, I will face it before denouncing Elijah Muhammad and the religion of Islam. I’m ready to die.”
Whether or not people supported Ali’s refusal to join the Army, it was difficult to ignore his principled viewpoint, one that led to the removal of his boxing title and triggered a three-year battle in the courts, forcing him out of the ring at the peak of his athletic prowess. But Ali never wavered on his stance against the Vietnam War, and amazingly he transitioned from perhaps the most reviled person in the country to one of the most revered people in the world.
With vindication that finally came from the U.S. Supreme Court, Ali got back into the ring to write another chapter in boxing’s history before, years later, making an even bigger contribution to humanity after being victimized by Parkinson’s disease. Although it robbed him of his physical grace and his amazing gift of gab, again he showed courage in the face of adversity by continuing his humanitarian work and bringing more awareness to Parkinson’s, resulting in increased funding for research. Perhaps even greater was the fact that he showed people with various afflictions that even with disabilities one can continue to live life and make a significant difference.
In the years to come, arguments will continue about Ali’s ranking among the all-time greats inside the ring. Whether he is considered to be the greatest fighter or not, he left a much bigger mark on the world outside the ring by bringing people together. Although he is gone, his legacy will live on. In the end, truer words were never spoken when, on the night of February 25, 1964, he screamed with glee and conviction: “I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”
Yes, he did!
"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? And to do so without changing his nature or, for one second, compromising his principles."
–– Bryant Gumbel
Tributes to Ali came in many forms, including T-shirts with his image and strategically placed signage throughout the city of Louisville.
"We must make sure that the principle [of] men and women like Muhammad Ali and others––whom dedicated their very being to assure that you get to recognize your own glory––is sustained and passed on like that Olympic torch."
–– Ambassador Attallah Shabazz
"You have inspired us and the world to be the best version of ourselves. May you live in paradise, free from suffering. Until we meet again, fly, butterfly, fly!"
–– Rasheda Ali-Walsh
"The way to honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today. That means it's up to us to continue that ability of putting truth to power."
–– Rabbi Michael Lerner
Editor of Tikkun
"Muhammad wants young people of every background to see his life as proof that adversity can make you stronger. It cannot rob you of the power to dream and to reach your dreams."
–– Lonnie Ali