Family, friends and fans out in force

Former US President Bill Clinton delivering a eulogy at Muhammad Ali funeral service at the KFC YUM! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, USA, on June 10.
Former US President Bill Clinton delivering a eulogy at Muhammad Ali funeral service at the KFC YUM! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, USA, on June 10.PHOTO: EPA

LOUISVILLE • Inside a big sports arena, the likes of former US president Bill Clinton, actor and comedian Billy Crystal, television personality Bryant Gumbel, religious leaders and family members spoke weighty and witty words about Muhammad Ali not long after the boxing legend was laid to rest.

Those who spoke at the inter- faith memorial service stood beneath the flags of the United States and the Olympics, symbols of a man who saw himself as a citizen of the United States and the world, said the New York Times (NYT).

Among those who delivered eulogies was Ali's wife Lonnie, 59, whose face was obscured by her wide-brimmed black hat. As she took to the stage, the crowd chanted: "Ali! Ali! Ali!"

In her eulogy, she said her husband was 12 years old when his bicycle was stolen and a police officer who spoke to him encouraged him to learn boxing. "America must never forget that when a cop and an inner-city kid talk to each other, miracles can happen," she said.

She also reminded the crowd: "If Muhammad did not like the rules, he would rewrite them. His religion, his name, his beliefs were his to fashion, no matter what the cost.

"Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted to use his life and his death as a teaching moment."

Adding levity to the service was Crystal, who reprised bits of his trademark comedy routine in which he imitated the boxer and sportscaster Howard Cosell, an important early supporter of Ali during his most polarising years, NYT reported.

"He was funny, he was beautiful, he was the most perfect athlete that you ever saw and those were his own words," said Crystal, a long-time friend of the boxer.

The service last Friday capped two days of tributes to the three-time heavyweight world champion. His home town did not hold back during a 30km funeral procession, with people at some points standing eight to 10 deep along the street for a fleeting last encounter with their favourite son, NYT reported.

There were no barriers to keep people off the street, and they swarmed forward when the motorcade passed, tossing flowers onto the hearse. City officials estimated there were about 100,000 people, Reuters news agency said.

"It was important for me to be here," Mr Matt Alexander, 63, who travelled from Florida, told Reuters. "I cried like a baby when I heard he'd died. I just didn't want to believe it because I wanted him to live forever."

Also in the crowd was Mr Wayne Simon, 72, who attended the same school as the boxing great - Central High School. "He was a dignitary from the sports world who travelled the globe, but he never forgot where he came from," he told NYT.

The entire funeral was just how the boxing legend had planned - as open as possible so that his fans could say goodbye.

And in a poignant farewell speech, his daughter Rasheda said: "We love you so much, Daddy.

"And until we meet again, fly, butterfly, fly."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'Family, friends and fans out in force'. Print Edition | Subscribe