Ali helped script his funeral as a 'last statement'

The family of the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali and the city of Louisville are preparing for his public funeral on Friday, which, organisers said, "The Greatest" helped plan himself.
The family of the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali and the city of Louisville are preparing for his public funeral on Friday, which, organisers said, "The Greatest" helped plan himself. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Service for three-time world heavyweight winner to reflect that he was 'people's champ'

LOUISVILLE (Kentucky) • The family of the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali and the city of Louisville are preparing for his public funeral later this week, which, organisers said, "The Greatest" helped plan himself as a "last statement" to the world.

The charismatic Ali, a dazzling fighter and outspoken civil rights activist who became a towering figure of the 20th century, died last Friday at age 74 from health problems complicated by a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

Former US president Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be among the speakers at the memorial on Friday at an arena in the Kentucky home town of the three-time world heavyweight champion. The pallbearers include actor Will Smith and former boxing world champion Lennox Lewis.

The public funeral will be preceded tomorrow by a family ceremony and an Islamic prayer service at the 18,000-seat Freedom Hall that hosted Ali's last fight in Louisville, against Willi Besmanoff in 1961.

The next day, Ali's coffin will be taken in a procession through the streets for fans to say goodbye.

"He was the people's champ and so he wanted that memorial service to reflect that," family spokesman Bob Gunnell said. He did not confirm whether President Barack Obama would attend. Tickets for the public ceremonies will be distributed free, organisers said.

Islamic studies scholar Timothy Gianotti stressed that "this was really designed and intended by the Champ himself to be his last statement to the people of planet Earth".

"The love and the reverence and inclusivity that we are going to experience over the coming days are really a reflection of his message."

Britain's Prince Harry, visiting a London boxing club on Monday, replied "Ali" to a young boxer's question asking who was "the greatest" - the description Ali frequently gave himself.

The official cause of Ali's death was septic shock due to unspecified natural causes. He had sought medical attention for a cough, but his condition rapidly deteriorated, Mr Gunnell said. He was admitted to a hospital in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, where he had lived with his wife Lonnie.

Ali's family removed him from life support last Friday.

"I am obviously really sad," Ali's daughter Laila, who followed in his footsteps into the boxing ring, told ABC's Good Morning America, but added she had "comfort in knowing he is not suffering any more".

Ali's career stretched from 1960 to 1981. He retired with a record of 56-5, including such historic bouts as the "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman in 1974 in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, Ali dazzled fans with slick moves in the ring and his wit and engaging persona outside it; he famously said he could "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee".

He took the name of Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam in 1964. His refusal to serve in the Vietnam war saw him prosecuted for draft evasion and led to his effective ban from boxing for three years during his prime. Ali held firm to his beliefs and eventually earned accolades as a civil rights activist.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2016, with the headline 'Ali helped script his funeral as a 'last statement''. Print Edition | Subscribe