For one last time, Ali brings whole world to a standstill
Boxer laid to rest as thousands of fans line streets for a final farewell
Published 11/06/2016 | 02:30
The superlatives had been exhausted. A legend. An inspiration. The fastest. The prettiest. And as he tirelessly, and playfully, pronounced until the bitter end - The Greatest. All that remained was for Muhammad Ali to be laid to rest.
In the somehow fitting setting of the KFC-Yum! sports arena - named after Kentucky's second most famous son, Colonel Sanders - an unlikely collection of dignitaries gathered yesterday for a memorial service to bid farewell to the greatest sporting personality. Former US President Bill Clinton. Black suited, bow-tied emissaries from the Nation of Islam. And Billy Crystal - an old and dear friend, apparently.
Ali, who spent his latter years silenced by Parkinson's, began planning his funeral long before, insisting on an open and inclusive service, and more than 18,000 people had gathered to pay their last respects.
"My father wanted it in an arena so everybody can come and be there," his daughter, Laila, had said. "Trust me, if 10 million people come, that's not going to be enough for him. He's going to be like, 'That's it?'"
It was a ceremony presided over by a Muslim imam, with a list of speakers that included a Catholic priest and two rabbis, and eulogies from Mr Clinton, Crystal, Ali's wife Lonnie, and two of his daughters, Maryum Ali and Rasheda Ali-Walsh.
Ali was married four times and had seven daughters - two by extra-marital relationships - and two sons. It is a family that had been divided over his legacy while he was alive, and is likely to be more divided with his passing.
It was his fourth wife Lonnie, whom he married in 1986, who nursed him through his slow and painful decline, and who, with power of attorney, has guarded over his affairs and his estimated $80m (€71m) fortune - in the process antagonising other family members, who claim they were denied access to their father.
His only biological son, Muhammed Jnr, has repeatedly claimed that Lonnie shut him out of his father's life emotionally and financially.
On the streets of Louisville, everywhere you looked there was Ali, on posters and signs, the flags at half-mast. On the day his casket was flown into his home, at the Muhammad Ali Centre, where mourners had gathered, thousands of bees had swarmed, it was said, in nature's own tribute.
But Louisville did not always smile so fondly on its golden son.
At the small wood-frame house at 3302 Grand Avenue, where he grew up as Cassius Clay, bunches of flowers and brightly coloured balloons garlanded the porch, as old neighbours and friends swapped stories.
"He'd deliver papers for the store two blocks over," an elderly lady seated in a car said. "He was polite and well-behaved, he never did nothing disturbing like kids do today. He always said he was gonna be somebody, but when he was a kid nobody knew how."
A man stood on the porch, a self-styled street-preacher, talking to whoever would listen. "It wasn't about him boxing. He was a prophet telling us what would happen in the last days!"
The house is a museum now, and at the house next door they sell tickets and souvenirs, postcards printed with Ali aphorisms: "Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion."
His father, Cassius Snr, was a sign-painter, his mother Odessa cleaned houses. The Clays were middle-class, which for a black family in Louisville meant merely that there was always food on the table and respectable clothes on their backs. But the city was strictly segregated, and the young Cassius and his younger brother Rudolph would have been forbidden from drinking from whites-only water fountains and entering the local amusement park.
When Ali returned to the city after winning his Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960, he was turned away from a diner with the words: "We don't serve niggers."
"Well," he is said to have replied. "I don't eat them either."
In 1978 - when he was probably the most famous person in the world - a proposal to rename Walnut Street in downtown Louisville as Muhammad Ali Boulevard passed by only the narrowest of margins, 6-5.
In February, 1964, just three months after the assassination of JFK, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become undisputed champion of the world for the first time. "I'm the King of the World! King of the World!" he shouted, dancing round the ring.
The following day he announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam.
Within weeks he had become Muhammad Ali, the name given to him by the movement's leader, Elijah Muhammad.
"I am America," he declared. "I am the part you won't recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me."
For many, Ali was an icon of the tumultuous decade that was the 1960s, a man who dared in 1967 to stand against his government and refuse to fight in Vietnam, and was vilified and punished for it, but who emerged from three years of professional exile to conquer the world. The firebrand mellowed, the inflammatory, separatist rhetoric of the Nation of Islam gave way to conciliation; the fighter became the peacemaker.
As Jesse Jackson put it: "He got better and never bitter."
In The Freedom Hall, a vast exhibition space, more often used for car and horse shows than Islamic prayer services, some 10,000 had gathered, of all creeds, colours and ages, the mood, as Ali himself had wished, of brother- and sisterhood.
The sound of an imam chanting from the Koran echoed around the rafters. A man in a fez walked up to another man, a stranger, wearing a kippa, and prayer shawl and embraced him.
"Muhammad Ali came to my house once," a woman told me. She was Pashtun; her parents had come from Afghanistan, at the time of the Russian invasion and settled in Louisville. In 1993, Ali was visiting a friend of the woman's family, and the friend had brought him, unannounced.
"We all just stood looking at him in our hallway. Muhammad Ali was in our house! And what was so wonderful was that he interacted with everyone - my parents, my brothers and sisters, he spoke to each of us."
She was 16, and offered him a drink. "He said he wanted Coke. I went to the fridge, and we had only diet Pepsi. I was so worried!
"Then I thought, perhaps because of his illness he won't recognise the difference. I gave it to him, and he drank it, then looked at me sternly and said 'This isn't Coke!' And then he laughed.
"He said he wanted to travel the world, alone, with no money, knowing that wherever he went people would know him and look after him. But he could never do that."
The chanting had stopped. Now a steel service door cranked open and a procession entered. The coffin, shrouded in a black cloth with gold Islamic lettering, borne on the shoulders of, improbably, Cat Stevens and President Erdogan of Turkey. The crowd surged forward, 20-deep against the crash barrier, a sea of mobile phones aloft, as the coffin was placed on a dais, behind a praetorian guard of impassive-faced Kentucky State troopers in grey Stetsons.
After the prayers, a speaker extolled "the majesty that was Muhammad", his "calming embrace".
"He gave us an identity; he inspired us; he built us up. Ali made being a Muslim dignified. Ali made being made a Muslim relevant. If you are an American, black or white, Ali is part of your history and you should be proud. Ali put the question of whether you could be a Muslim and an American to rest. Let us hope that question is interred with his remains."
The State Troopers stared out into the crowd.
A few hours before yesterday's memorial service, the funeral cortège passed, every stretch limo in the state, it seemed, bearing champions: George Foreman, Lennon Lewis, Mike Tyson.
An elderly black man stood beside me, cloudy-eyed. "He is the only man in the whole world that could have people come from all over the world to say goodbye to him. This would make him very happy."
The cortège drove on, to the Cave Mill Cemetery in the expensive part of town.
Born on the poor side, buried on the rich side, Louisville's shining son.
"His last line that he gave out," the elderly man said to me, "was that 'my life begins when I leave here'. He was talking about planet Earth. He wasn't afraid of leaving..." (© Daily Telegraph, London)