Rousing farewell for Muhammad Ali

By BBC

Rousing tributes have been paid to boxing legend Muhammad Ali at a memorial service in his home city of Louisville, Kentucky.

Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other speakers spoke of his fight for civil rights, while a message from President Barack Obama praised his originality.

The interfaith event took place hours after thousands said farewell as his coffin passed through city streets.

Ali was buried in a private ceremony attended by friends and family.

The ex-heavyweight champion and rights activist died last Friday aged 74.

The service, attended by dignitaries and by several thousand people who acquired free tickets, was held at the KFC Yum! Centre.

  • It started with a Koran reading in Arabic. Imam Hamzah Abdul Malik recited Sura Fosselat, Prostration chapter 41 verses 30-35, which includes the words: “Truly those who say our Lord is God and are righteous, the angels will descend upon them saying have neither fear nor sadness but rather rejoice in this paradise that you have been promised.”
  • Local Protestant minister Kevin Cosby said: “Before James Brown said ‘I’m black and I’m proud’, Muhammad Ali said ‘I’m black and I’m pretty’.”
  • Rabbi Michael Lerner attacked injustice against black people and Muslims, saying “the way to honour Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today – speak out and refuse to follow the path of conformity.”
  • Ali’s wife Lonnie told the crowd: “If Muhammad didn’t like the rules, he rewrote them. His religion, his beliefs, his name were his to fashion, no matter what the cost. 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.”
  • Former US President Bill Clinton described Ali as “a free man of faith”. He said: “I think he decided very young to write his own life story. I think he decided that he would not be ever disempowered. Not his race, not his place, not the expectations of others whether positive or negative would strip from him the power to write his own story.”
  • Valerie Jarrett, an aide to President Obama who knew the boxer personally, read a letter from the president describing Ali as “bigger, brighter and more influential than just about anyone in his era… Muhammad Ali was America. Muhammad Ali will always be America. What a man.” The president was not there, as he was attending his eldest daughter Malia’s graduation.
  • Comedian Billy Crystal said: “Thirty-five years after he stopped fighting, [Ali was] still the champion of the world. He was a tremendous bolt of lightning created by Mother Nature. Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night and his intense light shone on America and we were able to see clearly.”

Among those attending the service were King Abdullah of Jordan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended Thursday’s prayer ceremony and had been due at the service, but cut short his visit to the US. The reasons for his departure are not clear, though there are reports of differences with the funeral’s organisers.

Rose petals

The motorcade procession began at about 10:35 local time (14:35 GMT), more than an hour behind schedule, and took the coffin past Ali’s childhood home, then the Ali Center, the Center for African American Heritage and then down Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

Onlookers lining the roadside waved, took photos and chanted “Ali, Ali” as a cortege led by the hearse carrying his coffin drove through the downtown area.

Fans threw flowers at the hearse and rose petals were scattered along the route.

In one neighbourhood, several young men ran alongside the vehicle carrying a placard which read: “Ali is the greatest, thanks 4 all the memories.”

The cortege then brought the coffin to the Cave Hill cemetery, where Muhammad Ali was buried in a private ceremony. Actor Will Smith and ex-boxer Lennox Lewis were among the pallbearers.

In 1964, Ali famously converted to Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay, which he called his “slave name”.

He first joined the Nation of Islam, a controversial black separatist movement, before later converting to mainstream Islam.

In his boxing career, he fought a total of 61 times as a professional, losing five times and winning 37 bouts by knockout.

Soon after he retired, rumours began to circulate about the state of his health.

Parkinson’s Syndrome was eventually diagnosed but Ali continued to make public appearances, receiving warm welcomes wherever he travelled.

He lit the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Games in Atlanta and carried the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony for the 2012 Games in London.

He was crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC.

  

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