LOUISVILLE — The hearse’s rear door closed a little before 10:30 Friday morning, and as Muhammad Ali’s last ride began, so did the chanting.
“Ali! Ali! Ali!”
Hundreds had gathered, some of them hours earlier, to bid farewell to an icon of Louisville and America and planet Earth, the legendary boxer and outspoken activist who died a week earlier at age 74.
He was a fighter and a statesman and an ambassador of peace. Ali inspired and offended and compelled laughs and drew tears. He was a three-time world heavyweight champion, an instrument and example of changing times, a citizen of the world.
He was, as President Obama wrote in a statement, a symbol of America: “Brash, defiant, pioneering, joyful, always game to test the odds .”
“He was bigger, brighter and more influential,” the president’s statement continued, read on his behalf by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett during a sprawling, multicultural, occasionally rip-roaring public memorial Friday afternoon in downtown Louisville, “than just about anyone of his era.”
About 15,000 gathered inside the KFC Yum! Center to remember “The Greatest,” the “Louisville Lip,” the “People’s Champion.” They laughed at comic Billy Crystal, contemplated amid remarks by former president Bill Clinton, nodded and wiped tears during an address by Ali’s widow, Lonnie, who watched as her once-vibrant husband was silenced and slowed during a decades-long fight against Parkinson’s disease.
“As his voice grew softer,” she said, “his voice took on greater meaning.”
He was, as so many of those at the funeral saw him, a kind man and a native son. He was one of theirs. And so they waited.
This, as they saw it, was Ali’s “homegoing,” when a legendary boxer who fought in Las Vegas and Manila and Zaire finally came back to Louisville — this time for good. By 7:30 a.m., a few dozen had gathered at the A.D. Porter & Sons funeral home; an hour later, a few hundred were there, setting up chairs on the sidewalk and lawns, holding signs and telling stories. Drivers stood alongside parked cars on closed-down lanes, craning their necks for a look.
Leslie Hazard, 46, a deputy court clerk, zoomed her camera’s lens through hickory branches. Linda Sowell, 66, told stories to strangers, including about the time Ali, after he had become world heavyweight champion, stopped in Louisville to visit Sowell’s high school English class.
“He represented so many,” Hazard said. “He was the voice of a generation. He wasn’t afraid to speak out.”
Ali had, after all, converted to Islam in the 1960s, shedding his given name, Cassius Clay, and embracing a philosophy that encouraged peace and objected to war. Ali famously refused a draft appointment to fight in Vietnam; he refused to report even after he was banned from boxing, his heavyweight title stripped, and sentenced to five years in prison. If anything he doubled down: befriending controversial figures Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, speaking his mind and, after he was reinstated, continuing to taunt opponents and challenge societal norms during a period of American history marked by extreme tension and cultural change.
“Before James Brown said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ Muhammad Ali said: ‘I’m black and I’m pretty,’ ” Kevin Cosby, senior pastor at Louisville’s St. Stephen Baptist Church, told the audience at Friday’s memorial service. “He dared to love black people at a time when black people had a problem loving themselves.”
Lonnie Ali put it another way: “If Muhammad didn’t like the rules,” she said, “he rewrote them.”
Others chose to remember him more simply. Sheldon Lightsy, 58, held a framed photograph under his arm, removed from his mantel Friday morning because, he said, it felt right. In the black and white print a young Ali played Monopoly with Lightsy, who estimated he was around 5 at the time. This, Lightsy said, was classic Ali: a celebrity and a polarizing figure, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and a cultural unifier, one of the world’s most famous faces but also an accessible man who seemingly couldn’t turn down a board game with a child or a fan’s autograph request.
“Words can’t describe it,” Lightsy said, standing on the edge of the normally busy Bardstown Road as helicopters buzzed overhead. “An excellent man. A great friend always.”
Later, sportscaster Bryant Gumbel would put it similarly: “I doubt any of us,” he said, “will forget how Muhammad Ali made us feel.”
After a while Friday morning, a dozen or so limousines pulled into the funeral home’s circular driveway. Pallbearers, including actor Will Smith and former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, funneled inside. Family and friends gathered inside the building’s modest chapel, brown chairs and green walls, where for the past few days a guard had been stationed around the clock.
Then the group emerged from a side entrance, with Smith, Tyson and the others lifting Ali into the hearse as it began its 19-mile procession, past milestones and through neighborhoods before ending at Cave Hill Cemetery, with a right turn onto Bardstown Road. Someone scattered rose pedals on the asphalt, and the vehicle advanced toward the neighborhood in which Ali bought his mother a home not long after turning pro in 1960. It made its way west and then north, toward downtown, past the Ali Center and his boyhood home and the makeshift shrine that emerged this week in the city’s West End.
By the time it reached East Broadway a little after noon, people stood in a normally busy intersection and workers in scrubs stood in the shade outside a medical office as the procession approached.
When it did, easing past, some jogged alongside the hearse and pressed a hand against the vehicle’s body. Others tossed flowers onto the roof, and some screeched as Smith — whose 2001 portrayal of the three-time world heavyweight champion earned him an Oscar nomination — held both hands out of a window for surrounding fans to touch.
The chants of the estimated 100,000 began again, and others held signs to honor Ali. Latecomers jogged toward the busy streets and followed the helicopters for a quick glance on, as Hazard called it, a bittersweet day. A legend was gone, but a long battle with a corrosive disease — which Ali stood up to in the same public, defiant way he had faced boxing adversaries George Foreman and Joe Frazier — had finally ended.
“He suffered for so long,” Hazard said, “and now he’s at peace.”
A few hours later, Clinton would recall watching Ali — weakened and shaken by Parkinson’s — climb a platform in 1996 and ignite the Olympic flame in Atlanta. “He was going to make those last steps, no matter what it took,” Clinton said. “The flame would be lit, no matter what. The fight would be won. . . . He refused to be imprisoned by a disease.”
As the hearse made its way through the streets that turned Cassius Clay, his given name, into Muhammad Ali, that made a poor kid into a global icon, from a prankster to a poet, thousands lined up to say farewell to a man who lived a life so grand he would be feted by presidents — but gracious and approachable enough to fill strangers with stories.
Back at the funeral home, quiet now after a few chaotic but memorable days, a man from England entered and approached an employee. Ross Gibson, 25, had traveled a long way to bid Ali farewell. He held a bouquet of yellow roses.
Gibson said Ali, a man from a different time and place, nevertheless had had a profound influence on him; it only felt right to come to the city Ali had called home, leave the flowers on the counter and write a note he was unsure anyone would ever read, to stop in for a few moments and say goodbye.
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