Reflections on the passing of Muhammad Ali
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (Reuters) – The death of Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight champion known as much for his political activism as his boxing brilliance, triggered a worldwide outpouring of affection and admiration for one of the best-known figures of the 20th century.
Ali, who had long suffered from Parkinson’s syndrome which impaired his speech and made the once-graceful athlete almost a prisoner in his own body, died on Friday at age 74.
“He’ll be remembered as a man of the world who spoke his mind and wasn’t afraid to take a chance and went out of his way to be a kind, benevolent individual that really changed the world,” the family spokesman, Bob Gunnell, said at a news conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Despite Ali’s failing health, his youthful proclamation that he was “the greatest” rang true until the end for millions of people around the world who respected him for his courage both inside and outside the ring.
Along with a fearsome reputation as a fighter, Ali spoke out against racism, war and religious intolerance, while projecting an unshakable confidence that became a model for African-Americans at the height of the civil rights era and beyond.
Stripped of his world boxing crown for refusing to join the US Army and fight in Vietnam, Ali returned in triumph by recapturing the title and starring in some of the sport’s most unforgettable bouts.
“I think when you talk about Muhammad Ali, as great an athlete, as great a boxer as he was, he was the greatest boxer of all time, he means so much more to the United States and the world,” said Ali’s long-time friend, boxing promoter Bob Arum.
“He was a transformative figure in our society.”
Ali’s hometown of Louisville will honor the former boxing champion on Friday with a procession through the Kentucky city and public funeral at a sports arena, a tribute befitting a local hero who achieved global stature as a humanitarian.
The public service for Ali, one of the most celebrated figures of the 20th century whose death brought accolades from around the world, will feature eulogies by former president Bill Clinton, broadcaster Bryant Gumbel and comedian Billy Crystal, family spokesman Bob Gunnell said on Saturday.
The body of the former prize fighter was expected to be returned within the next two days to Louisville, where flags were lowered at city hall in his honor.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr in Louisville on Jan. 17, 1942, and was known as the “Louisville Lip” early in his boxing career because of his playfully boastful nature.
Fans gathered on Saturday at his modest childhood home on Grand Avenue, which has been converted to a museum, and at the Muhammad Ali Center, a cultural and educational venue, to pay their respects.
“Our deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences are with the Ali family and friends at this time. He will be forever be remembered as The Greatest,” the center said on its website.
Friday’s events were expected to begin with a private prayer service for family members at a Louisville funeral home.
The procession will then proceed along the city’s main streets, including Muhammad Ali Boulevard, to Cave Hill Cemetery, passing locations that were significant to the former champion.
The funeral service at the KFC Yum Center, which seats more than 20,000 people, and will be live-streamed at the center’s website.
Bursting onto the boxing scene in the 1960s with a brashness that threatened many whites, Ali would come to be embraced by Americans of all races for his grace, integrity and disarming sense of humor.
“In the end, he went from being reviled to being revered,” civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson told CNN on Saturday.
Pam Dorrough, a tourist in New York’s Times Square, admired Ali’s refusal to apologize for what he believed.
“The confidence – and I know everybody thought it was an arrogance about him – he always projected a confidence,” she said. “And he stood by that.”
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. Bush presents Muhammad Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC in 2005.