ST. GEORGE — Farewells to Muhammad Ali were abundant Friday as private graveside and public memorial services were held in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and as his life and achievements were honored by the U.S. Senate in Washington.
The boxing great, who died June 3 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease, was eulogized in the star-studded public memorial as a brash and wildly charismatic breaker of racial barriers.
In the Senate, he was remembered as an icon of freedom of conscience, recognized for a litany of achievements inside the ring and out. The resolution was introduced by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and honored Muhammad Ali as an athlete, philanthropist and humanitarian.
U.S. Senate resolution
In his remarks to the Senate, Hatch said he was eternally grateful for his special bond with Ali.
“Ali was the Greatest because — as an ailing yet unbroken champion in his later years — he pointed us to a greatness beyond ourselves, a greatness beyond even Ali,” Hatch said. “He pointed us to the greatness of God. I am eternally grateful for my special bond with this special man, and for my friendship with his beloved wife Lonnie, who was his dedicated companion to the very end. I pray that Ali may now rest peacefully in the presence of the Greatest of all, our God.”
Booker said Ali was an original, someone who uniquely made the world a better place.
“Like so many Americans, Muhammad Ali was one of my greatest heroes. He taught us to live as God created us to: not to fit in but to stand out, not to be a dull carbon copy of others but to be unapologetically original, not to go along with the world as it is but to fight to make it better, more just, more loving,” Booker said. “He was a champion unbound by the boxing ring. As we remember this man of tenacious principle, I am pleased to join Sen. Hatch in honoring his legacy through this resolution.”
Read the Senate Resolution here.
Family and friends reflect
Familiar and famous faces joined together at the memorial in Kentucky to reflect on the man known simply as “The Greatest.” And each of them had their own reasons supporting the title Muhammad Ali had long carried.
Comedian Billy Crystal remembered Muhammad Ali’s first reaction to his impression of the boxing great.
“When I was done,” Crystal said, “he gave me this big bear hug and he whispered in my ear, ‘You’re my little brother,'”
Among the many renowned faces at the service, it was Crystal, who brought the house down with his Ali impressions and memories. He said:
He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty. We’ve seen still photographs of lightning at the moment of impact, ferocious in its strength, magnificent in its elegance. And at the moment of impact it lights up everything around it so you can see everything clearly.
Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night.
Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “His dignity in the ring and his sense of heroism beyond the ring made him a living legend. … He never stopped winning battles whether it was in the ring or outside the ring.”
“It’s the end of an era and a sad day for the world,” singer Neil Diamond said. “Muhammad Ali once asked me to sing ‘I am, I said’ for him at my office. Of course, I did.”
“If Muhammad didn’t like the rules, he rewrote them,” his wife, Lonnie Ali, said. “His religion, his name, his beliefs were his to fashion, no matter what the costs.”
Wearing a large, black hat that concealed her eyes, Lonnie Ali became the chief storyteller of her husband’s legacy at Friday’s memorial, touching on how he wanted to be remembered in death, and how he helped plan his final goodbye.
“Some years ago during his long struggle with Parkinson’s in a meeting that included his closest advisers, Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, 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. “He wanted us to remind people who are suffering, that he had seen the face of injustice. That he grew up in segregation, and that during his early life, he was not free to be who he wanted to be.
“But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence.”
She also urged the 15,000 in attendance at the public memorial at the KFC Yum! Center to follow Ali’s example, and to reflect upon his legacy and what he stood for during difficult times.
Heavyweight boxer George Foreman said, “I feel like Louisville, Kentucky, is now my home, as I’ll make many visits to Ali beloved resting place in the future.”
Others in attendance included former President Bill Clinton, Hatch, director Spike Lee, former NFL great Jim Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, soccer star David Beckham, Whoopi Goldberg and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Hatch’s tribute at the funeral included some of his personal memories with the famous fighter. He said:
The friendship we developed was, I think, puzzling to many people, especially those who saw only our differences. But where others saw difference, Ali and I saw kinship. We were both dedicated to our families and deeply devoted to our faiths; he to Islam and I to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We were both products of humble backgrounds and hardscrabble youth; he grew up poor here in Louisville, I grew up poor in Pittsburgh.
True, we were different in some ways, but our differences fortified our friendship; they did not define it. I saw greatness in Ali’s ability to look beyond the horizon of our differences to find common ground. This shared sensibility was the foundation of a rich and meaningful relationship I will always treasure.
Ali was more than an extraordinary fighter, committed civil rights leader, international diplomat, forceful advocate of religious freedom and effective emissary of Islam, Hatch said.
“He was caring as a father, a husband, a brother, and a friend. Indeed, it is as a personal friend that I witnessed Ali’s greatness for myself,” he said.
Hatch said Ali was willing to put principles ahead of partisanship.
“So dedicated was Ali to our friendship that he joined me on the campaign trail during several election cycles, and he came to Utah year after year to raise funds for a charity benefitting needy women and families in our state,” Hatch said. “Ali didn’t look at life through the binary lens of Republican versus Democrat so common today. He saw worthy causes and shared humanity.”
Lonnie Ali’s reflections delivered at the memorial echoed Hatch’s; her husband’s life provides useful guidance as we face uncertainty in the world and divisions at home as to who we are as a people.
“Muhammad was not one to give up on the power of understanding the boundless possibilities of love and the strength of our diversity,” she said. “He counted among his friends people of all political persuasions, saw truth in all faiths and the nobility of all races.”
Hatch said there were many facets to Muhammad Ali’s greatness: his abilities as a boxer, his charisma as a public figure, his benevolence as a father and as a friend. All of these things made Ali great, he said, but it was something else that made him the Greatest.
God raised up Ali to be the greatest fighter of all time. Yet He allowed Ali to wrestle with Parkinson’s Disease, an inescapable reminder that we are all mortal and that we are all dependent on God’s grace. Ali believed this himself. He once told me, God gave me this condition to remind me always that I am human and that only He is the Greatest.
Home, at rest
Celebrities, politicians and athletes all came to honor Ali. But no one came out like the residents of his hometown, who put on a week of festivities to honor their most famous son.
Scores of children lined the route, pumping their fists, shouting “Ali! Ali!”
“It’s not explainable, it was amazing,” said Muhammad Ali’s son Asaad Amin Ali. “We looked out of the car and see people dancing and cheering and you also see people crying. (The children) are going to remember that for the rest of their lives.
“The outpouring of love … it’s inspiration. We saw how much he affected the world.”
More than 100,000 people filled the streets for The Champ’s final journey, which took a 19-mile route past Ali’s boyhood home and the museum that bears his name, via Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Louisville, Kentucky, to be laid to rest in a cemetery he chose more than a decade ago.
JENNA FRYER, Associated Press, CLAIRE GALOFARO, Associated Press, and BRUCE SCHREINER, Associated Press, contributed portions of this report from Kentucky.
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