Deluge of tributes as public mourn 'the people's champ'

As mourners leave tributes to boxer Muhammad Ali at the centre that bears his name, thousands of bees swarm a nearby tree across from a mural of his famous quote, 'sting like a bee'.
Tributes to the late heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali are pouring in at the centre that bears his name in his hometown Louisville, Kentucky.
A fan of Muhammad Ali, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, paying his respects at the Ali Centre in Louisville, Kentucky. The legend, who inspired millions all over the world, died on Friday at age 74.
A fan of Muhammad Ali, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, paying his respects at the Ali Centre in Louisville, Kentucky. The legend, who inspired millions all over the world, died on Friday at age 74.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOUISVILLE (Kentucky) • The people of Louisville poured into public squares on Saturday night, to remember the city's most beloved son.

They talked about him in terms Muhammad Ali would have appreciated: He was the greatest.

He was the one and only.

He was the people's champion.

"We grew up hearing the stories about him. About his goodness," said 26-year-old Breanna Detenber. She and her husband, Seth, visited a spontaneous memorial in the plaza outside the Muhammad Ali Centre. Their family is of mixed race, and son Mason laid roses alongside a picture of Ali.

Hundreds turned out at the memorial, despite gales and spitting rain. They were a testament to the breadth of Ali's influence: white people, black people. Young, old. Many wearing headscarves, others wearing pinstriped suits.

A private family funeral will take place on Thursday before Ali's burial in Louisville's Cave Hill cemetery on Friday.

Beforehand, there will be a procession through the streets "to allow anyone who is there from the world to celebrate with him", family spokesman Bob Gunnell said earlier.

It will follow the route of the parade that greeted Ali, then Cassius Clay, home from the Rome Olympics in 1960 where he won the gold.

Thereafter, a public memorial service will be held the same day, with former US president Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal and sports journalist Bryant Gumbel among those expected to offer eulogies.

But in Louisville, there was little talk of Ali as a boxer, despite his stature in the ring. People remembered him as a multi-dimensional person: a neighbour, a poet, a singer, a philanthropist.

"There's a lot of sadness, yes. But people also want to celebrate the variety of his accomplishments," said Donald Lassere, the president of the Ali Centre. "He was an inspiration. To all types of people."

Teddy Abrams, conductor of the Louisville orchestra, arrived with a keyboard and friends: violinist Scott Moore and percussionist Jecorey Arthur, better known for rapping under the name 1200.

"Muhammad Ali became a symbol of hope and love, and among other things he was also a musician. He could sing," Abrams said.

"So we came out to bring some of that love and music to the people. Right now people could use a little hope."

At Ali's childhood home - a modest pink house on Grand Avenue - people gathered to leave balloons, flowers, cards, signs. Many lived just blocks away, but others came from distant corners of the country.

Thomas Hauser Heydt Philbeck, an attorney from Raleigh, took photos of his son, Heydt Jr, outside the home. The father is 49, just old enough to remember some of Ali's later title bouts in the 1970s. But both talked about great moments - fighting Joe Frazier , Sonny Liston, George Foreman - as though they had happened days ago.

Bearing witness to the versatility of Ali's legacy, Philbeck said he, a middle-aged white attorney, keeps a picture of the legend in his office.

"He inspires me," he said.

"He had to believe he was the greatest before he could be the greatest. And that's what we all want to be."

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'Deluge of tributes as public mourn 'the people's champ''. Print Edition | Subscribe