Boxing legend Muhammad Ali to be laid to rest on Friday amid outpouring of grief
Muhammad Ali will be laid to rest Friday (June 10), the culmination of a two-day farewell for the beloved boxing legend and civil rights hero who electrified crowds the world over.
Thousands from near and far are expected to line the streets of Ali’s native city of Louisville in the southern US state of Kentucky to bid goodbye to the three-time heavyweight world champion who died last week at 74 after a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s.
Starting at 9am (9pm Singapore time), the funeral procession will wind through the city of 600,000 where Ali was born at a time of racial segregation.
It will pass sites that were important to “The Greatest”: his childhood home, the Ali Center, the Center for African American Heritage – which focuses on the lives of blacks in Kentucky – and, of course, along Muhammad Ali Boulevard before arriving at the Cave Hill Cemetery for a private burial.
The funeral service at the KFC Yum! Centre will begin at 2pm local time (2am Saturday Singapore time). It will be streamed live online.
Actor Will Smith, who earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ali on the silver screen, and former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis will be among the pallbearers.
An anonymous individual has pledged to cover the path to the grave with red rose petals.
On Friday afternoon, Ali will be honoured at an interfaith memorial service at a large sports arena that will bring together heads of state, VIPs and fans alike.
Some 15,500 people are expected to attend – with free tickets given out in a half-hour and a black market for the coveted tickets sprouting online.
Former president Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal will deliver eulogies, while sports journalist Bryant Gumbel, the daughter of civil rights activist Malcolm X, Attallah Shabazz, Ali’s wife Lonnie, and daughters Maryum and Rasheda, are also expected to speak.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah of Jordan will be in attendance.
US President Barack Obama will not be present at the funeral of the man he calls a “personal hero” since it coincides with his daughter Malia’s graduation. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who knew Ali, will represent the president.
But the president published a video message Thursday in which he displayed two mementoes gifted to him by “The Champ” – a book of photographs and a set of gloves – which have accompanied him through his time in the White House.
“This week we lost an icon,” Mr Obama said in the Facebook message. “A person who for African Americans, I think, liberated their minds in recognising that they could be proud of who they were.
“I grew up watching him. I grew up having my identity shaped by what he accomplished,” he said.
“The incredible gestures of love and support that he showed me was one of the great blessings of my life.”
On Thursday, thousands came together across creeds and nationalities for a Muslim prayer service in remembrance of Ali.
The brief ceremony brought together dignitaries and ordinary fans, honoring a man known for both his tenacity in the ring and his social activism outside of it.
“It was fabulous, seeing all the different nationalities, cultures, races, religions come together, even though it’s a very sad situation that he passed, it’s very inspirational,” said Makeeba Edmund, a city employee, who is Muslim.
Muslim men and women prayed in separate rows, most of the latter with their heads veiled.
One of those paying his respects was Babacar Gaye, a 54-year-old native of Senegal who remembers watching Ali fights at a house in Dakar as a teenager.
“There would be at least 60 people watching it on a small black-and-white television,” Gaye told AFP.
Born Cassius Clay, the boxer converted to Islam in 1964, changing his name to Muhammad Ali and shocking America.
Thursday’s prayer service was held at the site of Ali’s last fight in his hometown, where he defeated Willi Besmanoff on Nov 29, 1961.
“Muhammad Ali has a very, very special significance for the Muslim community,” Imam Zaid Shakir, who helped organise the prayer service, said earlier.
“This is about… sending him off in the very best of fashion,” said the Muslim cleric, adding that Ali would want his supporters to “honor his memory, live his legacy and love each other”.
For millions of Muslims around the world, Ali symbolised the true face of Islam, promoting peace and tolerance.
Lennox Lewis, a former world heavyweight boxing champion himself, said it was an honour to be a pallbearer and that Ali’s memory would never fade.
“The term ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ will always be remembered. He is an icon and a legend of boxing,” he said.
Abi Ajram, 48, who has made a 6,000km trip from London to pay his respects, was quoted by BBC as saying: “I feel Muhammad Ali deserved the world turning up for him. He was the number one.”