After a 30-year bout with Parkinson’s disease, one of the greatest athletes of all time, Muhammad Ali, has been laid to rest at age 74. Ali retired from the boxing ring in 1981, and was diagnosed with the disease at age 42 in 1984. But as the speeches, tributes, and eulogies of his funeral service show, Ali’s impact on this world packed a much greater punch than any he ever threw in the ring.
Ali’s intention to allow not only VIP, but also everyday folk to come together in his memoriam was a wish that he himself fulfilled by pre-planning his entire funeral service. “Muhammad is directing all of this, and he’s enjoying every minute of it,” family spokesman Bob Gunnell told the Associated Press. “Muhammad wanted this to be a free event, an event that was open to all.” Thursday, 14,000 fans and friends – including Don King, Jesse Jackson, and Sugar Ray Leonard – attended a memorial at Freedom Hall in Louisville to pay their respects.
Friday morning began with a 19-mile processional that winded through the streets of Louisville with thousands of people tossing flowers, chanting his name, and running alongside the black hearse that carried his cherry-red casket, draped in an Islamic shroud, commemorating Ali’s continuing presence and impact on the community. The procession took a special route down the boulevard that bears his name and had stops along the way that include the house where Ali grew up, the gym where he first began training, and the Muhammad Ali Center – which now doubles as a museum honoring the former champion.
After Friday morning’s procession, a “Celebration of Life” service was held at the KFC Yum! Center, which held the thousands of people who obtained free tickets to the memorial, and overflow crowds watched from a Jumbotron outside the arena doors. Speakers at the “Celebration of Life” service included former President Bill Clinton (who awarded Ali with the Presidential Citizens Award in 2001), actor Billy Crystal, journalist Bryant Gumbel, Ali's daughter Maryum Ali, and representatives from multiple faiths.
Here are some of the most touching, prolific, and honest moments during the eulogies:
“I think he decided very young to write his own life story. I think he decided before he could’ve possibly worked it all out of before time… could work on him, he decided he would never be disempowered. He figured out he who he was, what he believed, and living with the consequences of what he believed. …In the second half of his life, he perfected the gifts we all have.”
— Former President Bill Clinton
“From Louisville emerged a silver-tongued poet who took the ethos of “somebody-ness” to unheard of heights. Before James Brown said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ Muhammad said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty.’ When he said that it infused in blacks a sense of ‘Somebody-ness.’ He dared to love black people in a time when black people had a problem loving themselves. He dared to affirm the beauty of blackness and the power and capacity and power. He dared to love America’s most unloved race.
Whether you lived in the subs or the slums…whether you lived in the penthouse or the projects…Muhammad Ali loved you.
…Here, in Louisville, we are known for the Kentucky Derby and for Muhammad Ali. …We want you to come and bet on those horses. But remember the rules. …You can’t bet on a horse when he’s in the winner’s circle. You have to bet on the horse when he’s in the mud. …A few of people didn’t bet on Muhammad Ali until he was in the winner’s circle. But the masses bet on him while he was still in the mud.”
— The Rev. Kevin Cosby, pastor at St. Stephen Church in Louisville and president of Simmons College of Kentucky
“This outpouring of love…proves that 35 years after he stopped fighting, he is still the champion of the world. Didn’t he make all of our lives a little better than they were? …He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air. ”
— Billy Crystal, comedian
“What does it say of a man that can go from one of the country's most polarized figures to the most celebrated? …The honor Ali has given me as he goes to his grave is one I will take to mine.”
— Bryant Gumbel, journalist and legendary sportscaster
“He told a group of reporters unapologetically, ‘I’m the greatest.’ …He wasn’t talking trash, he was speaking truth. In the world of boxing he was truly, ‘the greatest.’ But to assume his grace and greatness stems from his athletics abilities is to only see half the man…There was something else that made him the greatest. He told me, ‘God gave me this condition to remind me that I am human and that He is the greatest.’ Muhammad Ali was the greatest because he reminded us who is truly the greatest…”
— Senator Orin Hatch
“He was cheered on as the heavy weight champion of the world. But sports heroes come and go. He was a person who was willing to risk a great fame to stand for beliefs that he had. I want to say, how do we honor Ali? The way we honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today. It is up to us to refuse to follow the path of conformity.”
— Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine
“…To your relatives and friends. Muhammad Ali was a leader among men and a champion of the people. He fought for the people of color yet he was a man of peace and principle. He was a man who used his gifts for the common good. He was a free, independent spirit that stood his ground with courage and conviction. Values and principals will determine one’s ending.
The ring was Ali’s path to his destiny… He said he would be the champion of the world. And he was, three times. And this is the fourth time, right here, right now.“
— Iroquois Nation Chief Sidney Hill and Chief Oren Lyons of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy
“Muhammad Ali was the living, breathing embodiment of the greatest that we can be… and we can say – each of us, in our hearts – that there is a little bit of Ali in me. When we say that in our hearts and we live it in our lives …we can establish a legacy worthy of the greatest of all time.”
— Rabbi Joe Rapport
“We must make sure that the principal of women and men such as Muhammad Ali is sustained like that Olympic torch… As my father would often say upon departing, may we meet again, in the light of understanding.“
— Attallah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X
“It was 1980, an epic career was in its twilight. Everyone knew it, even the champ himself. A sportswriter asked a bathroom attendant if he had bet on Muhammad Ali. ‘Mister I’m 72 years old and I owe the man for giving me my dignity. The man we celebrate today is not just a boxer or a poet or an agitator or a man of peace. He wasn’t even just the greatest. He was Muhammad Ali. The whole is much great than the sum of its parts. He was our most basic freedoms – religion, speech. His jabs knocked some sense into us. There were times when he swung wildly…but through all of his triumphs and failures, Ali seemed to achieve a sense of enlightenment and peace we are all searching for. …I grew up having my identify shaped by what he accomplished."
— Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama, delivering a message from the president.
“America must never forget that when a cop and an inner city kid talk to one another that miracles can happen. …All of his life, Muhammad was fascinated by travel. He took his world championship fights to the end of the world. …and he found that the world wasn’t black and white at all …it is rich in color.”
— Lonnie Ali, Muhammad’s widow
“You shook up the world in life, and now you’re shaking it up in death.”
— Rasheda Ali-Walsh, Muhammad's daughter
“The combination of grace, power, and speed made him a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. But his combination of passion, kindness, love and the ability to lift us up made him a once-in-a-lifetime person. I want to read a quote from Muhammad: ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.’ Champ, your rent is paid in full.”
— John Ramsey, family friend
Ali’s official burial, will took place Friday during an intimate, modest Muslim ceremony. His headstone simply reads, “Ali.”
He is survived by his wife, Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams, his seven daughters, and his two sons.