Muhammad Ali: for one last time, he brings the world to a standstill



 It was political. It was poignant. It was funny, flamboyant, and, fittingly – unforgettable.

Louisville on Friday bid a final farewell to their favourite son, sending off in style a man who was born 74 years ago in the segregated suburbs, and was buried in a ceremony befitting the giant he became.

Muhammad Ali had planned his funeral in detail, requesting the presence of Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal, Will Smith and boxing’s greatest – alongside his family and 18,000 fans.

He also wanted guarantees that all faiths would be represented, hence a series of powerful speeches and performances from rabbis, a Catholic priest, Buddhist monks and a Native American chief.

“Muhammad indicated that when his time came, he wanted to use his death as a teaching method for the world,” said his wife Lonnie, speaking with assurance and poise that defied her enormous loss.

“He had grown up in segregation. He never became embittered enough to quit or engage in violence. So even in death, Muhammad has something to say.”

And his presence in the Kentucky city was overwhelming.

Dr Kevin Cosby, a preacher in Louisville, paid tribute to a civil rights champion who fought to overcome the racism and division of his time.

He was a pioneer – “the people’s champ” – said Dr Cosby, to whoops and cheers from the fired-up auditorium.

“Before James Brown said I’m black and I’m proud, Muhammad Ali said I’m black and I’m pretty,” he said in a barnstorming address.

Orrin Hatch, a Mormon Republican senator for Utah, joked: “It’s hard for this old senator to follow that.”

But, in his own way, he did: telling an anecdote about how he invited Ali to a Mormon service in Salt Lake City, only for Ali to charm everyone by handing out signed copies of a Muslim text.

Rabbi Michael Lerner turned the political heat up several degrees, launching a series of blistering political attacks.

“We will not tolerate politicians or anyone else putting down Muslims or blaming Muslims for the sins of a few,” the rabbi yelled. “We know what it is like to be demeaned.”

He was scathing about Israel, Turkish attacks on Kurdish militants, and Wall Street – telling the stunned and shouting audience: “Tell your next president, tell her!

The cameras cut to Bill Clinton, laughing.

A Native American chief took to the stage next, providing a welcome change of pace with his mesmerising refrain, followed by Buddhist monks, drumming and chanting.

Ambassador Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, gave a powerful, tearful speech, saying: “Muhammad Ali was part of a treasured fraternity, bequeathed to me by my dad.”

She told of “his grief, for not having spoken to my dad before he left. His stories – some of which can’t be repeated. He was so funny”.

Resplendent in a glittering silver hat and necklace, she continued: “A unifying topic was faith; an ecumenical faith, respect for all faiths, even if belonging to one religion or none, the gift of all faiths.

“He said: We all have the one God. We just serve him differently. Rivers, lakes, plains, they all have different names – but they mean the same thing. Doesn’t matter if you are a Muslim or Christian or Jew – when you believe in God, you should believe all people are part of one family. Because if you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.

“Having Muhammad Ali in my life somehow sustained my dad’s breath in me – 51 years longer. Until now.”

Then it was the turn of the family. Lonnie Ali told of how her husband had taken up boxing when Joe Martin, a local police officer, told a 12-year-old boy whose bicycle had been stolen that he could teach him to fight.

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

Billy Crystal had the audience in hysterics, telling of the 42-year friendship with a man who called him “Little Brother”.

John Ramsey, a family friend and former radio host, described Ali as “the coolest cat in the room”.

He continued: “He was good looking. He had charm. He had charisma. He had swagger, before we knew what swagger was.

“Muhammad said service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth. And I just want to say: ‘champ, the rent is paid in full.’”

As the day came to a close, following a remarkable 19-mile funeral procession through the streets, his daughter Rasheda summed up the man Louisville so loved.

“Daddy’s looking at us now,” she said. “And he’s saying: ‘I told you I’m the greatest.’”

Bill Clinton, the former US president, has delivered an emotional speech to a “smart”, “wise” and “tremendously fun” man to be around.

He began his speech praising a man who was determined. “He decided very young to write his own life story. He decided he would not ever be disempowered. He never got credit for being as smart as he was, then he never got credit for being as wise as he was.”

Clinton described him as a universal soldier for our common humanity. Here is some of his speech in full.

In the end, besides being a tremendously fun man to be around, I will always think of him as a truly free man of faith… Being a man of faith, he realised he was never in full control of his life. Being free, he still knew he was open to choices. It is the choices that have brought us all here today.

As the first part of his life was dominated by triumph of fights, the second part was more important because refused to be imprisoned by disease.

In the second half of his life, he perfected gifts we all have: we all have gifts of mind and heart. It’s just that he found a way to release them; large and small.

Ali never wasted a day feeling sorry for himself just because he had Parkinson’s.

As he concluded his speech, Mr Clinton was given a standing ovation.

Billy Crystal, a good friend of Ali, described their close relationship and how he called him his little brother.

“Last week when we heard the news, time stopped. It’s hard to describe how much he meant to me… He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air. He came at the perfect moment.”

Crystal described how he and Ali first met when he performed a comedy sketch mimicking the boxer. “He seemed to glow.”

“He was funny, he was a fighter, he was beautiful – and those were his own words.”

 

“Here was this white kid from Long Island, mimicking the greatest of all time.”

Then Crystal powerfully concluded: “He is gone but he will never die. He was my big brother.”

(C) The Daily Telegraph, London

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