Louisville ready to 'welcome the world' to Muhammad Ali's funeral - but Obama will be missing

The childhood home of Muhammad Ali in Louisville becomes a focal point for fans paying tribute to the sporting legend who died on June 3.
Fans of Muhammad Ali leaving pictures and personal mementos as they pay their respects at the Ali Centre in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 7.
Fans of Muhammad Ali leaving pictures and personal mementos as they pay their respects at the Ali Centre in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 7.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOUISVILLE (AFP) – Muhammad Ali's hometown is ready to "welcome the world" for this week's ceremonies honouring the late boxing legend, Louisville’s mayor said on Tuesday (June 7), with a huge public procession set for "The Greatest". But the White House said President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle will not attend.

The funeral coincides with the graduation of the Obamas' oldest daughter, said spokeswoman Jen Friedman. "They will be attending Malia's high school graduation ceremony in Washington, DC," she said.

Instead, a close aide "will read a letter from the president and the first lady as part of Friday's service in Louisville."

The largest city in the southern state of Kentucky and home to 600,000 people, Louisville will play host Thursday and Friday to the mass public celebration of the life of Ali, its most famous native son.  

Ali, whose remarkable boxing career and civil rights activism made him one of the most indelible figures of the 20th century, died last week at age 74 after a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s disease.  His death has prompted an outpouring of tributes for The Champ, who won three heavyweight titles and Olympic Gold during his illustrious years in the ring.  

New York renamed a street outside Madison Square Garden “Muhammad Ali Way” after the boxing great who headlined a string of fights at the iconic sports arena.  

“Today, we are paying tribute to the man in the heart of this city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “He deserves this naming honor and more.”

The ceremonies in Louisville will have three key moments: an Islamic prayer service open to all on Thursday, a long public funeral procession through the city on Friday and a memorial service at a sports arena that same day.  

Former US president Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal are among those expected to speak about Ali. Clinton awarded Ali the Presidential Citizens Medal at the White House in January 2001, just before leaving office.  

“This celebration for Muhammad will be a one-of-a-kind event for anywhere in the world... and for us,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said, calling on the city’s residents to show the hospitality and compassion that Ali championed.  

“Muhammad shook up the world and he showed everybody he was a world-class fighter and humanitarian, so now let’s welcome the world.”

Earlier this week, Obama called Ali’s widow, Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams to offer his condolences.  He also remembered a man “who fought for what was right” and whose gloves sit in his private White House study.

Local authorities have received more than 2,000 accreditation requests from the US and world media, and the hotels in Louisville – no stranger to big events, as the home of horse racing’s marquee Kentucky Derby – are booked solid.  

“There are so many heads of state attending the funeral service that we are not allowing any foreign dignitaries or heads of state to speak at the funeral service,” Ali family spokesman Bob Gunnell said.  

The list of those world leaders remained unclear – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s staff confirmed he would attend. Actor Will Smith – who earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ali on the silver screen – and former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis will be among the pallbearers for Ali, who was born in Louisville as Cassius Clay in January 1942.  

The Islamic service on Thursday will take place in the 18,000-seat Freedom Hall that hosted Ali’s last fight in Louisville, in which he beat Willi Besmanoff, in 1961.  

On Tuesday, organisers started distributing tickets for the event, with residents waking up at dawn to be sure to get a seat.  “I am here to get tickets for my grandson. He is eight. I want him to know that you can be great no matter where you come from,” said Angela Smith Ward, who is retired from the US Army.  

First in line was David Alcorn, who arrived at 1:30 am. Like many Americans, he has two jobs – as a bus driver and at a gas station. He was heading to work as soon as he got a ticket, but he said he wasn’t worried about being too tired.  

“He is the greatest of all time and this is his hometown. I just want to be part of it,” Alcorn told AFP.  

On Friday, the procession – which will see Ali’s coffin paraded through the streets of Louisville – will allow those without tickets for the Islamic service or the public memorial to see their hero one last time.  

The route will pass by sites that were important to Ali: his childhood home, the Ali Center, the Center for African American Heritage – which focuses on the lives of blacks in Kentucky – and, of course, along Muhammad Ali Boulevard.  

Ali had been pondering and preparing his own funeral for years, given the disease that ravaged his once-powerful body. He hoped to send the world a final message of peace, organisers have said.

One thousand volunteers will be on hand to assist visitors expected from around the globe.  “Now the world is doing more than watching our city – the world is coming to our city,” Fischer said.