Muhammad Ali’s funeral in Louisville, Kentucky, Friday saw luminary figures like President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal and Bryant Gumbel pay tribute to the Greatest of All Time.
“He was not just a Muslim or black man or a Louisville kid … He was more influential than just about anyone of his era,” President Obama wrote in a statement read by Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. “You couldn’t have made him up. And yes, he was pretty too.
“Muhammad Ali was America. Muhammad Ali will always be America.”
A close friend of the boxing legend, Crystal recounted how he first met Ali in 1974, when his stand up act included doing an impression of both him and sportscaster Howard Cosell. Ali loved the routine, and called Crystal his “little brother” from then on.
“It’s very hard to describe how much he meant to me,” Crystal said. “Every one of his fights had the aura of a Super Bowl … He was the most perfect athlete you ever saw, and those were his own words.”
Gumbel recalled how he shook Ali’s hand when The Champ visited Chicago when the veteran TV host was just 17 years old.
“I was awestruck,” Gumbel said. “And man, I thought he was the greatest. And half a century and a lifetime of experiences later, I am still awestruck and more convinced than ever that Muhammad Ali is the greatest.”
Members of the Ali family spoke as well, including Ali’s wife Lonnie Ali, who recounted how Ali was first directed towards boxing by police officer Joe Martin. “America must never forget that when a cop and an inner city kid talk to each other, then miracles can happen,” she said.
Thousands upon thousands of mourners filled the KFC Yum! Center in Downtown Louisville. The ceremony was presided over by an imam in the Muslim tradition, but people of many faiths offered their remembrances of Ali.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a devout Mormon, was joined by rabbis, Catholic priests, Native American chiefs, Muslim clerics and Buddhist monks in praising Ali’s legacy, both as an athlete and a civil rights figure.
The iconic heavyweight fighter passed away June 3 in an Arizona medical facility surrounded by his family. The official cause of death was “septic shock due to unspecified natural causes,” his spokesman Bob Gunnell said.
He was admitted to an Arizona hospital for respiratory issues but as the days went by his condition deteriorated. Hana Ali, one of Muhammad’s daughters, recounted her father’s final moments on Twitter:
“All of us were around him hugging and kissing him and holding his hands, chanting the Islamic prayer. All of his organs failed but his HEART wouldn’t stop beating. For 30 minutes … his heart kept beating. No one had ever seen anything like that. A true testament to the strength of his SPIRIT and WILL!”
Other tributes continue to pour in for the former world and Olympic champion. President Obama tweeted, “He shook up the world, and the world’s better for it. Rest in peace, Champ.”
George Foreman, Ali’s opponent-turned-lifelong friend, described him as “a fine man” and “royalty.”