LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (AA) – Thousands of fans paid a final tribute to Muhammad Ali in an interfaith memorial service Friday as the boxing legend’s legacy inspired eulogists to explore the human condition and the American cultural experience through his larger-than-life persona.
The star-studded speakers drew on personal memories and shared moments to magnify the talent, courage and moral fabric that made Ali “The Greatest”.
Former President Bill Clinton said Ali was a “free man of faith” and a “universal soldier for our common humanity.
“I think he decided before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided that he would not be ever disempowered,” Clinton said.
“Being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life,” he said. “But being free he realized that life still was open to choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that have brought us all here today in honor and love.”
Comedian Billy Crystal, a long-time friend of Ali’s whom the champ called “little brother”, described the three-time heavy weight champion as “a tremendous bolt of lightning”.
Ali’s message, Crystal said, was that “life is best when you build bridges between people not walls”.
Rabbi Joe Rapport of the Temple of Louisville said Ali was “the heart of this city, and that heart beats here still”.
Ali may have lived in the city but his significance to the black community proved a recurring theme for many eulogists who portrayed him as a champion in the fight against racism.
Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby said Ali “dared to love black people at a time black people had a problem loving themselves.
“While he is the property of all people, let us never forget that he was the product of the black people in their struggle to be free.”
Father Henry Kriegel said the boxing legend “opened our eyes to the evil of racism and the absurdity of war”.
Ali famously challenged being drafted for the Vietnam War in 1967. That same year, he was stripped of his heavyweight title, had his boxing license suspended and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Although highly controversial at the time, Ali’s firm stance caused the public opinion shift slowly, and the Supreme Court later acquitted him of all charges.
“My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America.
And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger,” Ali said publicly while defending his decision to refuse induction into the army.
Crystal said, “Ali who stood up for us when he stood up for himself” against going to war.
During his life, Ali went from being “one of this country’s most polarizing figures to, arguably, its most beloved”, according to sportcaster Bryant Gumbel.
Taking the podium to thunderous applause, Ali’s wife, Lonnie, said her husband “wanted to use his life and his death as a teaching moment.
“He wanted to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice," she said. "He never became embittered enough to quit or engage in violence."
She recalled the story of a Louisville police officer who taught Ali how to box when his bicycle was stolen at the age of 12.
"Joe Martin handed young Cassius Clay the keys to a future in boxing he could scarcely have imagined.
"America must never forget that when a cop and an inner-city kid talk to each other, then miracles can happen,” she said.
Lonnie also reminded the audience of Ali’s humanitarian achievements and how his faith informed every aspect of his life.
“For his religion, he was ready to sacrifice all that he had, all that he was to protect his soul and follow the teachings of Prophet Muhammad,” Lonnie said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch described Ali as being “open to goodness in all its different realities and varieties.
“Ali once told me: God gave me this condition to remind me that I am only human and that only He is the Greatest,” Hatch said.
Muhammad Ali, who was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC, died last Friday at the age of 74.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at the age of 42 and put up a public battle against the disease for more than three decades the condition slowly robbed him of control of his limbs and slurred his speech.
A week after his passing, a procession traveled through his hometown of Louisville on an 18-mile (30-kilometer) route, taking Ali’s body and more than a dozen accompanying vehicles to the street named after him, a museum that stands as a tribute to his sports and humanitarian accomplishments and to his childhood home.
On Thursday, a Muslim janazah prayer was held in Freedom Hall, with thousands attending, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.