Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Muhammad Ali's body makes journey through hometown

Published:Friday | June 10, 2016 | 6:04 PM
Pallbearers place Muhammad Ali's casket in the hearse as it prepares to begin a procession through the fighter's hometown of Louisville.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP):
Muhammad Ali made his final journey through his hometown today – past the little pink house where he grew up and the museum that bears his name – as thousands of mourners along the route pumped their fists and chanted, "Ali! Ali!" for the former heavyweight champion of the world known simply as The Greatest.

A hearse bearing Ali's cherry-red casket, draped in an Islamic tapestry, arrived at Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery in a long line of black limousines after a 19-mile drive via Muhammad Ali Boulevard that was both somber and exuberant.

He was to be laid to be rest around midday — his headstone inscribed simply "Ali" — in a private graveside ceremony, followed in the afternoon by a grand memorial service attended by more than 15,000 people, including former President Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal.

Ali, the most magnetic and controversial athlete of the 20th century, died last Friday at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

The casket was loaded into a hearse outside a funeral home as a group of pallbearers that included former boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and actor Will Smith filed out, along with Ali's nine children, his wife, two of his ex-wives and other family members.

PHOTO: Flowers pile up on the hearse carrying Muhammad Ali spectators watch his funeral procession enter Cave Hill Cemetery.

As the limousines rolled past, fans chanted like spectators at one of his fights, stood on cars, held up cellphones and signs, ran alongside the hearse or reached out to touch it, and tossed so many flowers onto the windshield that the driver had to pull some of them off to see the road.

Others fell silent and looked on reverently as the champ went by.

"He stood up for himself and for us, even when it wasn't popular," said Ashia Powell, waiting at a railing for the hearse to pass by on an interstate highway below.

On Friday, Takeisha Benedict and four co-workers were color-coordinated in orange "I Am Ali" T-shirts as they waited along Muhammad Ali Boulevard to pay their respects as the hearse went by.

"To me, he was a legend to this city and an example to people. I'm just glad to be part of this history, of saying goodbye," she said. "Opening it up and allowing us to be part of it, we're so appreciative."

Hundreds of people crowded the streets in front of the funeral home.

PHOTO: mourner holds an American flag as the funeral procession for Muhammad Ali makes its way down Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Louisville.

Mike Stallings, 36, of Louisville, brought his two young sons, and the family made signs to wave.

"I've been crying all week," he said. "As big as he was he never looked down on people. He always mingled among the crowds."

Ali chose the cemetery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, as his final resting place a decade ago. Its 130,000 graves represent a who's who of Kentucky, including Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders.

Family spokesman Bob Gunnell said the simple headstone will be in keeping with Islamic tradition.

A traditional Muslim funeral service was held Thursday, with an estimated 6,000 admirers arriving from all over the world.

Among the scheduled speakers at today's memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center were Clinton, Crystal and TV journalist Bryant Gumbel. The king of Jordan was also expected to attend.

Ali himself decided years ago that when he died, the funeral would be open to ordinary fans, not just VIPs.

As a result, thousands of free tickets were made available and were snatched up within an hour.