Muhammad Ali remembered for compassion and fearlessness during three-hour memorial

06/10/2016 09:11 PM

LOUISVILLE — It was a ceremony fit for a titan among men, and one that will never be forgotten.

A who’s who of spiritual leaders, dignitaries, athletes and actors joined more than 10,000 in honoring the life of the man simply known as “The Greatest” for more than three hours at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center on Friday.

Muhammad Ali’s memorial service was delayed by an hour as his funeral procession crawled through the city, but for those who witnessed the overwhelming passion along the procession route like Imam Zaid Shakir, the experience was worth it.

“I’ve witnessed something I’ve never, ever witnessed in my life and I don’t think I will ever witness again,” Shakir said. “… I witnessed the power of sainthood.”

Ali’s widow, Lonnie Ali, thanked supporters for their outpouring of love and support since her husband’s passing.

Like other speakers, Lonnie said her husband spent his life giving a voice and a hand to those who needed it most.

“As he moved with ease around the world, the rich and powerful were drawn to him,” she said of her late husband. “But he was drawn to the poor and the forgotten.”

Former President Bill Clinton called Ali “a universal soldier for our common humanity” and “a free man of faith,” recalling the boxing legend’s determination in lighting the Olympic torch during the 1996 games in Atlanta despite a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease.

“I’ll never forget it,” Clinton said. “I was sitting there in Atlanta. By then we knew each other. By then I felt that I had some sense of what he was living with, and I was still weeping like a baby seeing his hands shake and his legs shake and knowing by God he was going to make those last few steps no matter what it took.”

Actor and comedian Billy Crystal recounted meeting Ali during his first television appearance as a newcomer to comedy, which included his impersonation of Ali’s interactions with sportscaster Howard Cosell.

Crystal and Ali struck up a lifelong friendship that day, with the man he knew as “The Champ” giving him the nickname “Little Brother.”

“He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by mother nature out of thin air,” Crystal said.

“Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night, in the heart of its most threatening gathering storm,” he continued. “His power toppled the mightiest of foes, and his intense light shined on America, and we were able to see clearly injustice, inequality, poverty, pride, self-realization, courage, laughter, love, joy and religious freedom for all.”

Sportscaster Bryant Gumbel remembered hearing the news of Ali’s hospitalization in the days before his death.

At that moment, Lonnie Ali said the world still needs Muhammad Ali, according to Gumbel.

“Yeah, we do need Muhammad Ali now,” he said. “We need the strength and the hope, the compassion, the conviction that he always demonstrated.

“But this time our beloved champion is down, and for once he’ll not get up. Not this time. Not ever again.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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