In a funeral he planned years ago, Muhammad Ali will be coming home as a “citizen of the world” when he is buried Friday in Louisville.
A procession will carry his body down an avenue that bears his name, through his boyhood neighborhood and down Broadway, the scene of the parade that honored the brash young man – then known as Cassius Clay – for his gold medal at the 1960 Olympics.
Funeral details were outlined by family spokesman Bob Gunnell at a news conference Saturday in Scottsdale, Arizona, not far from Ali’s home in his final years.
The family “certainly believes that Muhammad was a citizen of the world … and they know that the world grieves with him,” Gunnell said.
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Family members will accompany Ali’s remains to Louisville within the next two days. A private funeral ceremony will be held Thursday.
After the Friday procession, a memorial service open to everyone will be held at Louisville’s KFC YUM! Center. The list of eulogists was not complete, but will include former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal – who famously has done a masterful impression of Ali – and sports television host Bryant Gumbel.
The ceremony will be led by an imam in the Muslim tradition but will include representatives of other faiths. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch will represent Mormons.
“Muhammad Ali was clearly the people’s champion,” Gunnell said, “and the celebration will reflect his devotion to people of all races, religions and backgrounds.”
Ali’s wife, Lonnie, and his children had 24 hours to say goodbye to him, Gunnell said.
The 74-year-old boxing great died at 12:10 a.m. Saturday, the spokesman said, of “septic shock due to unspecified natural causes” after three decades of Parkinson’s disease.
In Louisville, not even pouring rain Saturday could stop the flood of tributes for “The Greatest.”
In the three-time heavyweight champion’s old neighborhood, brother Rahaman Ali stood in a small house on Grand Avenue and dabbed his eyes as he shook hand after hand. The visitors had come from as far away as Georgia and as near as down the street.
“God bless you all,” the 72-year-old Rahaman said to each.
Ali’s death held special meaning in Louisville, where he was the city’s favorite son.
“He was one of the most honorable, kindest men to live on this planet,” his brother said while greeting mourners at their childhood home, recently renovated and turned into a museum.
Cars lined both sides of the Louisville street where Ali grew up. The guests piled flowers and boxing gloves around the marker designating it a historical site. They were young and old, black and white, friends and fans.
Another makeshift memorial grew outside the Muhammad Ali Center downtown, a museum built in tribute to Ali’s core values: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, charity, spirituality.
“Muhammad Ali belongs to the world,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said at a memorial service outside Metro Hall. “But he only has one hometown.”
Rahaman recalled what Ali was like as a boy named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., long before he became the most famous man in the world, the Louisville Lip, celebrated as much for his grace and his words as his lightning-fast feet and knockout punch.
In their little pink house in Louisville’s west end, the brothers liked to wrestle and play cards and shoot hoops.
“He was a really sweet, kind, loving, giving, affectionate, wonderful person,” Rahaman said, wearing a cap that read “Ali,” the last letter formed by the silhouette of a boxer ready to pounce.
When he was 12 years old, Ali had a bicycle that was stolen and he told a police officer he wanted to “whoop” whoever took it, Fischer said at the memorial service. The officer told him he’d have to learn how to box first.
Daniel Wilson was one year behind Ali at Central High School and remembered he was so committed to his conditioning that he didn’t get on the school bus like everybody else. Instead, he ran along beside it, three miles all the way to school each morning.
“The kids on the bus would be laughing and Ali would be laughing too,” he recalled at the Grand Avenue home.
Ruby Hyde arrived at the memorial holding an old black-and-white framed photo of a young Ali. She’d been a water girl at his amateur bouts as a teenager in Louisville, and seen even then that there was something special, something cerebral, about the way he fought. Years later, he came back to the old neighborhood as a heavyweight champ, driving a Cadillac with the top down.
“All the kids jumped in and he rode them around the block,” she remembered.
He never forgot where he came from, she said.
“He’s done so much for Louisville. He’s given us so much,” said Kitt Liston, who as girl growing up in Louisville admired Ali’s unblinking fight for justice and peace. “He’s truly a native son. He’s ours.”
Liston’s voice trembled as she recounted running into him at a baseball game a few years ago.
“I got to tell him how much I cared about him. He put that big ol' paw out and just shook my hand,” she said. “He just had time for everybody.”
The mayor ordered the city’s flags at half-staff.
Outside Metro Hall, Fischer pointed west, toward Ali’s childhood home, about three miles away in one of the city’s poorest zip codes.
“There can only be one Muhammad Ali, but his journey from Grand Avenue to global icon serves as a reminder that there are young people with the potential for greatness in the houses and neighborhoods all over our city, our nation, our world,” he said.
Fischer told mourners to teach all children Ali’s legacy: that a kid from Kentucky can grow up to be “The Greatest.”
“That’s how we become champions,” he said. “Muhammad Ali has shown us the way.”
What they’re saying
Quotes from around the world after the death of three-time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali:
“A tremendous loss. There was a time when I was a teenager and I was going through some turmoils in my life and some turmoils in the country. Muhammad Ali gave us all – especially young black men – a sense of pride and a sense of strength.” – Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker.
“He was a natural force. His radiance came from inside. You got the feeling of inner excellence, he felt from himself. It came from him. As he developed as a great champion it was apparent that this was a God given quality I never doubted.” – Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s longtime doctor and corner man.
“The true GOAT (Greatest of All Time). What a sad day for everyone to (lose) someone so great and kind and someone who really stood up for what they believed in. He was my hero. He always will be. #muhammadali #cassiusclay” – Tennis great Serena Williams on Instagram.
“I gave Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and wondered aloud how he stayed so pretty throughout so many fights. It probably had to do with his beautiful soul. He was a fierce fighter and he’s a man of peace, just like Odessa and Cassius Clay, Sr., believed their son could be.” – Former President George W. Bush.
“Mr. Ali was far more than a legendary boxer; he was a world champion for equality and peace. With an incomparable combination of principle, charm, wit and grace, he fought for a better world and used his platform to help lift up humanity.” – Spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“The world has lost a great Champion. Muhammad Ali, lover of human beings, a warrior for the fight against discrimination … a great friend.” – Tweet by football great Jim Brown.
“The sporting universe has just suffered a big loss. Muhammad Ali was my friend, my idol, my hero. We spent many moments together and always kept a good connection throughout the years. The sadness is overwhelming. I wish him peace with God. And I send love and strength to his family.” – Soccer great Pele on Twitter and Instagram.
“Muhammad Ali, who passed away yesterday, was an extraordinary athlete and a remarkable man of good deeds who conquered the hearts of millions. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s life-long struggle against racism and discrimination will never be forgotten. May Allah have mercy on Muhammad Ali, whose courage, conviction and determination inspired all of humanity. – Tweet from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Today we bow our heads at the loss of a man who did so much for America. Tomorrow, we will raise our heads again remembering that his bravery, his outspokenness, and his sacrifice for the sake of his community and country lives on in the best part of each of us.” – Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.