“Muhammad Ali taught us life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls,” spoke Billy Crystal at a star-studded memorial service that often saw its crowd of thousands bursting into chants of: “Ali! Ali!”
Muhammad Ali made his final journey through his hometown Friday in a funeral procession for The Greatest as thousands of mourners lined the streets where the future heavyweight champion of the world once chased school buses in hiking boots to train for his fights.
His cherry-red casket, draped in an Islamic shroud, was loaded into a hearse as a group of pallbearers that included former boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and actor Will Smith left the funeral home in a double file. Ali’s nine children, his wife, two of his ex-wives and other family members joined the motorcade.
The 17-car motorcade set out for a Louisville, Kentucky cemetery on a 19-mile route that took Ali’s body past the little pink house where he grew up and the museum that bears his name, by way of Muhammad Ali Boulevard as an estimated 100,000 mourners along the route pumped their fists and chanted, “Ali! Ali!”
Fans chanted like spectators at one of his fights, pumped their fists, stood on cars, held up cellphones, signs and T-shirts, tossed flowers and scattered rose petals as the champ went by. Truckers honked their horns in salute. Others looked on quietly and reverently.
Others fell silent and looked on reverently as the champ went by.
A private graveside service was held in the afternoon — his headstone inscribed simply “Ali” — 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, Billy Crystal, Spike Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Beckham, Whoopi Goldberg and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
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.”
Crystal cracked everyone up with his career-making impersonation of a boastful, fast-talking Ali — and his imitation of Ali’s foil, sportscaster Howard Cosell — and rhapsodized about Ali’s charisma, outspokenness and talent, calling the boxing great “a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air.”
“He was funny. He was beautiful. He was the most perfect athlete you ever saw,” the comedian said. “And those were his own words.”
In a nod to presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, Crystal also said to the crowd: “Muhammad Ali taught us life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls.”
Clinton closed out the memorial service by calling Ali a “truly free man of faith” who took “perfect gifts we all have” and released them to the world.
Clinton noted that Ali never felt self-pity because of the Parkinson’s disease he battled for three decades, and that he continued to give himself to the world long after his diagnosis as “a universal soldier for our common humanity.” Saying, “I think Ali decided at a very young age to write his own story. “He never got credit for being as smart as he was.”
Earlier in the service, Kevin Cosby, pastor of a Louisville church, told the crowd of up to 15,000 people at the KFC Yum! Center that Ali “dared to affirm the power and capacity of African-Americans” and infused them with a “sense of somebodiness.” He likened Ali to such racial trailblazers as Jesse Owens, Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.
“Before James Brown said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ Muhammad Ali said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty,'” Cosby said. “Blacks and pretty were an oxymoron.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner, a political activist and editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun, brought the crowd to its feet four times with a fiery speech in which he referred to Ali’s refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War — a stand that cost him his boxing title.
“Ali stood up to immoral war, risked fame to speak truth to power. The way to honor him is to be like him today,” Lerner said, railing against anti-Muslim bigotry, drone attacks, the gap between rich and poor, and racist policing.
Ali, the most magnetic and controversial athlete of the 20th century, died last Friday at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. A traditional Muslim funeral service was held Thursday, with an estimated 6,000 admirers arriving from all over the world.
On Friday, hundreds of people crowded the streets in front of the funeral home.
Ali chose the cemetery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, 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.
Ali himself decided years ago that when he died, the 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.
Family spokesman Bob Gunnell said the simple stone in Cave Hill Cemetery will be in keeping with Islamic tradition.
Among the scheduled speakers at the memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center were Clinton, Crystal and TV journalist Bryant Gumbel. Those in attendance also included boxing promoter Don King.
Gumbel said Ali went from being one of the most polarizing figures to one of the most beloved and said he did it without changing his nature or compromising his principles: “He gave us levels of strength and courage we didn’t even know we had. Hating people of color is wrong, Ali said, and it doesn’t matter who does the hate. It’s just plain wrong.”
Gumbel lamented that the three-time heavyweight champion had finally gone down: “And for once he won’t get up. Not this time. He is down.”
President Barack Obama was unable to make the trip because his daughter Malia is graduating from high school. Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser, planned to read a letter from Obama at the service.
Rumors that 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 highly emotional upon learning of 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 small pink house with white trim. 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.
12:45 p.m. PT: Updated with guests at the memorial service
3 p.m. PT: Updated with the start of the memorial service
3:30 p.m. PT: Updated with the conclusion of the memorial service