He called it “The Book.” More than a decade prior to his death, Muhammad Ali and a select cadre of relatives and close friends began to outline and record in exacting detail how he wanted to say good-bye. The life of the 74-year-old sports legend and human rights icon will be celebrated today and tomorrow in his native Louisville, Ky., a town which up to now has only been at the national forefront for two-minute intervals each year with the running of the Kentucky Derby.
Expect national and world leaders–from former President Bill Clinton to King Abdullah II of Jordan–to arrive in Louisville and pay homage to, arguably, one of the most famous figures in modern world history. Ali wanted a traditional Muslim funeral service (called a Jenazah), in an arena and therefore the 18,000-seat Freedom Hall will be packed at noon today and open to all. The arena held special significance to Ali being the site of his first professional victory in 1960. A second service will occur tomorrow.
For years, the plan was to have Ali’s body lie in repose at the Muhammad Ali Center, but that tribute was reportedly dropped at the last minute because his wife, Lonnie, was concerned that the facility would have to be closed for the day because of the throngs of people likely to gather and mourn. In its place, a miles-long procession was added that will carry Ali’s body across his hometown, including a last visit to the museum built in his honor, along the boulevard named after him, through his old neighborhood and boyhood home.
At tomorrow’s service, Mr. Clinton will deliver the eulogy at the KFC Yum! Center where an additional 15,000 mourners are expected to gather. Other speakers will include representatives of multiple faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Mormonism and Catholicism. These persons will be followed by his wife, Lonnie Ali, his daughter Maryum Ali, actor Billy Crystal, sportscaster Bryant Gumbel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Actor Will Smith, who received an Academy Award for his 2001 portrayal of Ali, will be one of eight pallbearers including five members of Ali’s family as well as former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis and Jerry Ellis, brother of the late Jimmy Ellis who was one of Ali’s sparring partners.
“The message that we’ll be sending out is not our message–this was really designed by the champ himself,” said Timothy Gianotti, an Islamic studies scholar who assisted in the funeral plans for years. “The love and reverence and the inclusivity that we’re hoping to experience is really a reflection of his message to all of the people around the world.” Gianotti added that Ali wanted multiple religions to have a voice while honoring the traditions of Islam. “He wanted ordinary people to be present, not just VIPs,” Gianotti explained. He added that the Muslim funeral service was “critically important for the global Muslim community to say good-bye to their beloved champ.”
Since Ali’s death, services have been conducted throughout Louisville. Rahaman Ali, his younger brother, joined congregants last Sunday at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church, not far from the home where the two grew up in the city’s west end. At the service, he quoted one of his brother’s favorite words on religion: “Rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, oceans all have different names, but they all contain water. So do religions have different names, and they all contain truth.” The service hosted speakers of many faiths including Muslims, Jews, Protestants and Catholics. Although Ali converted to Islam in 1964, he sometimes attended services at the church; Ali’s father, Cassius Clay Sr., was an artist and active member of the church who painted a mural of Jesus’ baptism that still hangs behind the pulpit.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said it has been a bittersweet week for his city. “We’ve all been dreading the passing of the Champ,” he said, “but at the same time we knew ultimately it would come. It was selfish for us to think that we could hold on to him forever. Our job now, as a city, is to send him off with the class and dignity and respect that he deserves.”
Ali will be interred at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, the final resting place for many of the town’s most famous citizens including Col. Harlan Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In keeping with Islamic tradition–yet in contrast with his oversized personality–Ali’s gravesite will feature a modest marker. It has not been revealed what words will be inscribed on the marker.
A Brush with Greatness
By Gregg Reese
Here in southern California the presence of celebrity is so omnipresent that we’ve become jaded, with scores of media icons and would be icons within the radius of the “thirty mile zone” (or ‘TMZ’). Out in the rest of the world though, and especially in the “fly over states” of Middle America this is not the case. The prospect of interacting with one of the outsized personas typically encountered via electronic media or on the printed page is still very much a novelty, a remarkable deviation from the numbing grind of life’s routine.
Back in 1986 or 87, I was toiling for Uncle Sam in the deep, dark nether regions of rural Kansas. By this time, the end of my enlistment was still months away, but the novelty of defending the heartland had worn off, and I was merely bidding my time until I could take off my uniform and take up the challenges of civilian life.
To break the monotony one evening, a friend of mine talked me into going to a public appearance by Muhammad Ali, several years past his prime. The prospect of avoiding another beer soaked night of playing cards and trading war stories about our amorous exploits, real and imagined, won out and so we ambled down to one of the many watering holes out in the foothills, strategically placed to drain the paychecks of unwary servicemen.
Once inside this drinking establishment whose name I’ve now forgotten, we found a generous crowd already packed around this former pillar of pugilism, now reduced to various card tricks and sleight of hand techniques that were his vocation after he’d hung up his gloves (I later learned he had his own private magician under contract for a time). Scores of G.I. s crowded around Ali, laughing at this new avenue for his showmanship, and posing for photos with my fallen icon.
For me however, the spectacle was a bittersweet experience, as I was caught up in the memory of what this man had meant for youngsters of color on the threshold of manhood during my generation, and I signaled my buddy I was gone, and began to make the trek up the hill to my barracks.
Several minutes of road marching later, I came across a gas station and a large stretch limousine being refueled. My mind was blank, perhaps contemplating the next of an endless series of inspections that comprised my existence as I walked around the vehicle to continue my hike towards home.
Suddenly a figure appeared before me, not a giant, but a formidable specimen none-the-less, who’d apparently climbed from the automobile in my path. The individual was backlit from the glare of the streetlamps behind him, his facial features cloaked in darkness as he held his arms in the familiar stance of a boxer ready to face an opponent before taking a step or two in my direct.
My brain reeled in recognition of a persona I’d gazed upon countless times in print and on the small screen, but never in public.
Confused by the absurdity of what was transpiring, I stammered a response:
“I got too much respect for you to throw my hands up, Champ-but I’ll take a hug,” as the two of us embraced with a familiarity that belied the fact that we’d never met before, and would never cross paths again, at least in this life.
Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life, and he was probably right for the vast majority of us in our brief existence on the planet. But Ali, befitting his outsized being, lived a life that required additional addendums to the standard three-act structure.
The brash upstart who offended White America and frightened conservative Blacks by going against the niceties of acceptable humility in the ethos of sportsmanship; the religious dissenter who embraced a strange belief that many found hostile and ominous in a time of racial turbulence; the iconoclast who turned his back on conventional patriotism by aspiring to a higher morality and put his career and earning potential on line to prove it; and finally the elder statesman who won out against the critics of his youth to emerge as paragon of virtue, the master of a violent sport who became a giant of humanity.
Muhammad Ali meant many things to many people, often stirring up dissimilar emotions to individuals at different times in their lives. His outsized personality transcended his adopted profession of prize fighting, and even (for him) the narrow definition of “athlete.” It is then, especially iconic that my own personal recollection of him transpired far from the bright lights of celebrity in the American heartland.
Muhammad Ali Timeline
By William Covington
1942 Muhammad Ali is born on Jan. 17, in Louisville Kentucky to Cassius Marcellus Clay and Odessa Clay. The newborn is named after his father.
1954 After having his bike stolen, 12-year-old Clay reports the theft to local law enforcement. Informing officer taking report that he was going to “whup whoever stole it.” In an attempt to channel Clay’s aggression, the police officer takes Clay under his wing and introduces him to boxing trainer Fred Stoner. Following that introduction, Clay wins six Kentucky Golden Glove championships, two national Golden Glove championships and two AAU titles from 1954 to 1960, becoming one of the most anticipated amateur athletes in the country.
1960 Cassius Clay wins the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome with a 5-0 decision over Zbigniew Pietzykowski.
After returning home to his native Louisville, Clay discovers he is not immune to racism in the United States. After being refused service by a waitress in a Whites-only restaurant, and then fighting with a White gang, Clay throws his gold medal into the Ohio River.
The 18-year-old fighter turns pro soon after the Games and wins his first professional fight on Oct. 29.
He wins 19 total bouts between 1960 and 1963, setting up his first title shot against Sonny Liston in 1964.
1964 Clay challenges Sonny Liston for the WBA world heavyweight title. Liston says he did not believe Clay deserved a title shot. Clay was considered a heavy underdog. Clay stayed focused, acting as if he were the favorite, and this was the birth of the fast-talking, charismatic “people’s champion.” persona On Feb. 25, Clay defeated Liston by technical knockout when the defending champion failed to answer the bell for the seventh round in Miami Beach. It’s called one of the biggest upsets in boxing history at the time.
After the fight Clay joins the Nation of Islam the following day and begins going by the name Cassius X.
1967 Ali refused induction into the Army due to his religious beliefs. He was criticized by fellow African Americans Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Ali believed the draft was unfair because, most individuals drafted were poor or from working-class families. There were deferments that were based on family status and academic standing that went to individuals like Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump. It was very rare for an African American to get a deferment.
Ali was stripped of his WBA title and his license to fight, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. He remained free pending numerous appeals.
1970 Due to Georgia not having a boxing commission, Ali is able to box there. He returns to the ring there and defeats Jerry Quarry in the third round.
1971 Ali fights heavyweight champ Joe Frazier in March and Ali is defeated. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s draft evasion conviction for evading the draft in an 8-0 ruling.
1974 Ali and Joe Frazier have a rematch in Madison Square Garden. This time, Ali won in 12 rounds. Later that year Ali knocks out George Foreman in the eighth round during the “Rumble in the Jungle.”. Ali tires out Foreman using the “rope-a-dope” strategy.
1975 Ali took on Frazier for a third (and final) time, this time in the Philippines. Ali beat Frazier in a TKO in the 14th round in what will be forever known as “The Thrilla in Manila”.
Ali’s biography, “The Greatest: My Own Story,” by Richard Durham, is published. Among the topics in the book is the mention that Ali threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River. There have been various reports about Ali losing his medal since.
1978 Ali loses to 1976 Olympic champion Leon Spinks in 15 rounds by a split decision.
Ali later avenges his loss against Spinks and became the first three-time world heavyweight champion by defeating Spinks in the Louisiana Superdome.
1979 Ali announces his retirement.
1980 Ali comes out of retirement to face Larry Holmes in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Holmes overmatched Ali, and Ali’s corner stopped the fight after 10 rounds.
1984 Although Ali had shown some signs he might have Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disease of the brain, leading up to the Holmes fight in 1980, he officially is diagnosed with the ailment.
1996 Ali lights the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. He also received a replacement gold medal for the one he won in 1960.
2016 Muhammad Ali dies in Phoenix Ariz., after being hospitalized with respiratory issues. He was 74 years old.