Sending off Muhammad Ali, simply 'The Greatest'

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

The legendary boxer Muhammad Ali was laid to rest in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., on Friday, eulogized as an extraordinary fighter, a committed civil rights leader and a fierce advocate for peace.

The hearse containing Ali’s body led a procession that included 16 limousines that wound its way through the streets of Louisville on a 19-mile journey to his final resting place in Cave Hill Cemetery.

Thousands of mourners lined the streets to pay their final farewell, throwing flowers onto the hearse and running alongside it or just jumping out of line simply to touch it in an intimate sign of love and respect.

President Obama was unable to attend because his oldest daughter, Malia, graduated high school on Friday. But Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser to the president, appeared on his behalf and read a statement she said he wrote.

Obama noted that Ali had fans, “in every village, city and ghetto on this planet,” and called the young Ali a “loud, proud black voice in a Jim Crow world.”

He said that Ali’s passion for justice and civil rights helped create the conditions that made it possible for him to become president.

“Through all of his triumphs and failures, Ali seemed to achieve the sort of enlightenment and peace that we are all striving toward,” Obama’s statement said. “In the 60s, when others his age were leaving the country to avoid war or jail, he was asked why he didn’t join them. He got angry. He said he’d never leave. His people in his words were here, the millions struggling for freedom and justice and equality and I could do a lot to help, in jail or not, right here in America.”

Former President Bill Clinton recalled when he was making a speech using what he called “high-tone language” at the dedication of the Ali Center in Louisville.

He said he was trying to be “an old, gray-haired elder statesman” when Ali lightened the mood, as he often did.

“I felt, ‘I had to elevate this guy,’ so I’m saying all this stuff in very high-tone language,” said Clinton, a long-time friend of Ali’s. “Muhammad sneaks up behind me and puts his fingers up behind my head.”

Clinton held up two fingers and placed them behind his own head, imitating Ali, as a child would to make bunny ears.

The hearse carrying the body of Muhammad Ali passes in front of his boyhood home on Friday. (AP)

“My enduring image of him is like a reel in three shots,” Clinton said. “The boxer I thrilled to as a boy. The man I watched to take the last steps to light the Olympic flame when I was President. I’ll never forget it. I was sitting there in Atlanta. We knew each other and by then, I felt I had some sense of what he was living with. And I was still weeping like a baby, seeing his hands shake and seeing his legs shake and knowing by God, he was going to make those last few steps no matter what it took. The flame would be lit. The fight would be won. The spirit would be affirmed. I knew it would happen.

“And then, this: The children whose lives he touched. The young people he inspired. That’s the most important thing of all. I ask you to remember that. We all have an Ali story. It is the gift we all have that should be most honored today because he released them to the world. Never wasting a day.”

Lonnie Ali, his wife of 30 years, thanked the public for the tremendous outpouring of love and support.

She spoke of the time when a 12-year-old Ali had his bicycle stolen and vowed to whip the person who stole it. He met a Louisville police officer, Joe Martin, who also happened to be a youth boxing coach.

Martin launched Ali’s career to greatness.

“America must never forget that when a cop and an inner-city kid talk to each other, then miracles can happen,” she said.

She said that Ali helped plan his own funeral and wanted the service to be an example to others about the things that were truly important in life.

“He wanted us to use his life, and his death, as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world,” she said. “In effect, he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice, that he had endured segregation, and that throughout his early life, he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or engage in violence.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a friend of Ali’s for three decades, praised him for his commitment to civil rights. He rose to fame as a boxer, Hatch said, but will be remembered for living a life committed to human rights, civil rights and social justice.

“With the cutthroat quickness of a street fighter and the simple grace of a ballerina, Ali moved with Achilles-like agility and punched with Herculean strength,” Hatch said. “But to assume Ali’s greatness stems solely from his athletic prowess is to see only half the man. Ali was great, not only as an extraordinary fighter, but he was a committed civil rights leader.”

Ali lived nearly half of his life with Parkinson’s disease after having been diagnosed with it in 1984. Numerous speakers said he never complained about it, but Hatch put it into perspective.

He said they spoke of his condition often and that Ali accepted it unhesitatingly.

“He said, ‘God gave me this condition to remind me I am human and that only He is the greatest,’ ” Hatch said.

The service, which was held in the KFC Yum! Center and was packed with more than 15,000 mourners, lasted nearly three hours. It was an interdenominational service that included representatives of many religions.

Rev. Dr. Stephen W. Casey, the senior pastor of St. Stephen’s Church in Louisville, gave a rousing sermon that brought the audience of its seats.

He talked of how Louisville was known for Ali and the Kentucky Derby, and praised those who had supported Ali for his stance in opposition to the Vietnam War from the early days.

Ali refused induction into the Army in 1967 and was banned from boxing for more than three years. He wasn’t widely supported initially. Casey drove home that point as he spoke of betting on the Derby.

Mourners threw roses on Muhammad Ali's hearse on Friday as the funeral procession progressed in Louisville. (AP)

“Our city is known for two things,” Casey said. “It is known for Muhammad Ali and it is known for the Kentucky Derby. We hope you will come back and visit our city on the first Saturday in May. We hope you will place a bet on one of the horses. But if you do, please know the rules. What will happen is the horses will start off in the starting gate. Then, the signal will be given and they will run in the mud for two minutes. The winner will then be led to the winner’s circle where a wreath of roses will be placed around the horse’s neck. We want you to make a bet, but please know the rules. You cannot bet for the horse once it’s in the winner’s circle. You have to bet for the horse while it’s still in the mud.

“There are a lot of people who bet on Muhammad Ali when he was in the winner’s circle, but the masses bet on him while he was still in the mud. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stood with him when he was in the mud. Jim Brown stood with him when he was in the mud. Bill Russell stood with him when he was in the mud. Howard Cosell stood with him when he was in the mud.”

Casey, who said Ali helped African Americans “feel like somebodies” with his commitment to civil rights, stressed Ali’s importance to the black community.

“Please don’t mishear me: I am not saying Muhammad Ali is the property of black people,” Casey said. “He is the property of all people. But while he is the property of all people, let us never forget that he is the product of black people in their struggle to be free.”

A longtime friend, John Ramsey, spoke of Ali’s eagerness to donate money and help others.

Ramsey cited Ali’s famous quote of, “Service to others is the rent we pay for our room on Earth,” when he said, “Champ, your rent is paid in full.”

He said Ali was ready to help at a moment’s notice.

“If he learned there was a village that needed food in a third-world country, Ali was on a plane with a check,” Ramsey said. “If there was a conflict and he could be part of the resolution, again, Muhammad would travel. As Lonnie mentioned, if there were hostages to be released, Muhammad was a man of action. … He’s taught us to love instead of to hate, to look for commonalities instead of differences.”

Ali’s daughters, Maryum and Rasheda, also spoke about their father. So, too, did comedian Billy Crystal and sports journalist Bryant Gumbel.

It was a fitting tribute for "The Greatest."