LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Muhammad Ali returned to his old Kentucky neighborhood one last time.
Ali’s body rode in a miles-long procession spanning his life — from his boyhood home where he shadowboxed and dreamed of greatness to the boulevard that bears his name and the museum that stands as a lasting tribute to his boxing triumphs and his humanitarian causes outside the ring.
Louisville is accustomed to being in the limelight each May when the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs captures the world’s attention. But the send-off for the three-time heavyweight champion and global advocate for social justice was one of the city’s most historic events.
Ali died last Friday at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. The procession and memorial service followed a traditional Muslim funeral service held Thursday afternoon. The faithful traveled from all over the world to pay their respects.
Thousands were expected to line the procession route Friday to wave a final goodbye to the city’s favorite son. The motorcade began at the funeral home and headed north onto the interstate, pausing briefly to overlook the Muhammad Ali Center in the heart of downtown.
At 2 p.m., thousands gathered at the KFC Yum Center for final send-off befitting The Greatest.
The service featured a eulogy by former President Bill Clinton, a longtime friend, and remarks by comedian Billy Crystal, television journalist Bryant Gumbel and the champ’s wife, Lonnie. The king of Jordan and president of Turkey was expected to attend.
Clinton closed out the memorial service to Ali by calling him a “man of faith” who took “perfect gifts we all have” and released them to the world.
“Being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life. Something like Parkinson’s could come along,” Clinton said. “But being free, he realized that life was filled with multiple choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made are what brought us all here today.”
Clinton noted that Ali never felt self-pity because of the Parkinson’s disease he battled for three decades, and said he continued to give himself to the world as “a universal soldier for our common humanity” long after his diagnosis.
“I think Ali decided at a very young age to write his own story,” Clinton said. “He never got credit for being as smart as he was.”
President Barack Obama was unable to make the trip because his daughter, Malia, is graduating from high school. Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser, read a letter Obama wrote to Ali’s family at the service.
Ali’s widow, Lonnie Ali, thanked the world for its support since the boxing great’s death. She then embraced the role as chief advocate for her husband’s legacy at his memorial service on Friday.
She received a standing ovation at the ceremony, and the crowd broke into the familiar chants of “Ali, Ali, Ali.”
She says expressions of support have “come in every language, from every corner of the globe” since Ali’s death a week ago.
She says the champ’s family was “humbled by your heartfelt expressions of love.”
Lonnie Ali then talked about her husband’s life journey as a lesson for others. In a message aimed at young people, she said her husband never “became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence” while facing adversity in youth.
The memorial was expected to draw 15,000 people and will bookend a weeklong series of planned services and spontaneous celebrations.
The Ali Center stopped charging people for admission. A tour company began impromptu tours of Ali’s path through the city. Businesses printed his quotes across their billboards. City buses flashed “Ali – The Greatest” in orange lights across their marquees. A downtown bridge said it would be lit the rest of the week in red and gold: red for his gloves and gold for his medal.
How can the storied life of a man revered by fans worldwide be encapsulated in a two-hour service? As it turns out, Ali called the shots.
Years ago, the champ signed off on how he wished to say goodbye to the world. One of his mandates was that ordinary fans attend, not just VIPs. Thousands of free tickets were snatched up within an hour, many fans waiting hours for the chance to witness history.
“Everybody feels a sense of loss with Ali’s passing,” said Mustafa Abdush-Shakur, who traveled from Connecticut to pay tribute to him. “But there’s no need to be sad for him. We’re all going to make that trip.”