He was claimed by the world. But, on Thursday, Muhammad Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky welcomed him back as one of their own, with 15,000 people streaming into a huge convention centre to pay tribute to their favourite son.
American and international, young and old, men and women, Muslims and Christians, people in their thousands all poured into the Freedom Hall – the site of his last fight in the city, against Tunney Hunsaker in October 1960.
Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
“The legacy of Muhammad Ali will last forever,” said Lennox Lewis, speaking to The Telegraph outside the hall. “I’m happy that I am here to say goodbye to the greatest.”
Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, joined Jesse Jackson and boxing promoter Don King in paying quiet tribute. On Friday Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will pay their respects, beside Will Smith – who played the boxer in his 2001 film Ali.
Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
“Ali touched on the lives of every creed, colour, race and nationality,” said Muhammad Ziyad, a friend of the boxer since the 1970s. “And he put this plan for his funeral together.”
His friend Talut El-Amin, who was part of Ali’s entourage, added: “It was important to him to have people from all walks of life.
“The Christians put him where he was – they bought his tickets at first, not the Muslims. So he wanted to have a Christian and Muslim ceremony.”
And the city was determined to do him proud. Banners in his memory greet arrivals at Louisville airport; the motorway into the centre is lined with billboards featuring his face. Flags fly at half mast.
The two days of mourning begun at the vast, concrete-floored Freedom Hall – nowadays used as a convention centre and exhibition site, more used to car shows than boxing matches.
Outside, the atmosphere was joyful – a carnival-like celebration for old friends. Fittingly for Kentucky’s equestrian tradition, a horse was present – standing in the shade, boxing gloves over his saddle and a blanket with Ali’s name over his hindquarters.
Credit: David Goldman/AP
Inside, Islamic prayers echoed through the hall as his body was brought in, on the shoulders of Yusuf Islam – the British singer formerly known as Cat Stevens. Men and women then lined up to pray for the 74-year-old, who died last week in Arizona.
Sherman Jackson, a religious professor at the University of Southern California, delivered a rousing, politically-charged eulogy, praising him as a symbol of unity in a divided nation.
“Ali put the question as to whether you could be a Muslim and an American to rest,” he said. “Let us hope that that question is interred with his remains.”
He continued: “Ali gave us pride and identity. He gave us confidence. He inspired us, built us up, gave us courage, and taught us how to fight – not only inside the ring, but outside as well. This is the stuff that transformed the lives of millions of Americans – myself included.”
“Whether you are black, white, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist – Ali belongs to you as well.”
Several miles away, at Ali’s childhood home local people and curious tourists gathered.
When Ali was a child, growing up with his younger brother Rahaman, the city was riven by segregation. Even when he won gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, on his return to Louisville a sandwich shop refused to serve him, because he was black. In disgust, Ali threw his medal into the Ohio river.
But now the city celebrates their global hero. The house was turned into a museum in 2013, and restored from ruin. On Thursday the lawn of the pink-hued bungalow was decked with flowers, balloons and a sign stating: “Greatness.”
Credit: Mick Brown/The Telegraph
Glenda Williams had brought her six-year-old grand-daughter, Monica, to see the house. Travelling from Okolona, 25 minutes away, she said she wanted her granddaughter to know who Ali was.
“She doesn’t know anything about him, but I want her to learn.
“It’s an opportunity to change the mindset of the youth – get them away from computer games, teach them about a real role model.”
Monica struck a pose in front of the house, to laughter from her grandmother.
“He died,” said the six-year-old sombrely. “But he was a good man and loved his children.”
He was a great athlete, Mrs Williams added.
“That too,” nodded Monica.
Lynn Shumake, 52, grew up around the corner from Ali. Her elder brother was at Central High School with Ali, and was “crazy about him.”
“He came back, and bought a house for his mother, and for me that was so neat,” said Mrs Shumake. “He never forgot where he had come from. He wasn’t the greatest scholar. But he made something of his life.”