LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Muhammad Ali made his final journey through his hometown Friday – 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 sombre and exuberant.
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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.
WATCH: Thousands gather for Muhammad Ali’s funeral
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.
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.
VIDEO: Mourners gather in Louisville to say goodbye to boxing great Muhammed Ali. Jackson Proskow reports
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 colour-co-ordinated 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.”
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Hundreds of people crowded the streets in front of the funeral home.
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.
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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 Friday’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.
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Louisville is accustomed to being in the limelight each May during the Kentucky Derby. But the send-off for the three-time heavyweight champion and global ambassador for international understanding represented one of the city’s most historic events.
“We’ve all been dreading the passing of the champ, but at the same time we knew ultimately it would come,” Mayor Greg Fischer said. “It was selfish for us to think that we could hold on to him forever. Our job now, as a city, is to send him off with the class and dignity and respect that he deserves.”
Tyson was added at the last moment to the list of pallbearers. Gunnell said that Tyson was highly emotional upon learning of Ali’s death and wasn’t sure if he could handle the memorial, but ended up catching a late flight.
Rumours that Donald Trump would attend were quashed Friday morning when Gunnell said the Republican presidential candidate called Ali’s wife, Lonnie, to inform her that he was unable to make it.
President Barack Obama was unable to make the trip because of his daughter Malia’s high school graduation. Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser, planned to read a letter from Obama at the service.
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People gathered early in the day outside Ali’s boyhood home, which was decorated with balloons, flags, flowers and posters. Fans took photos of themselves in front of the house. Some people staked out their places nearby with lawn chairs.
The Ali Center stopped charging admission. A sightseeing company began tours of Ali’s path through the city. Businesses printed his quotes across their billboards. City buses flashed “Ali – The Greatest” in orange lights. A downtown bridge will be illuminated the rest of the week in red and gold: red for his boxing gloves, gold for his Olympic medal.
“Everybody feels a sense of loss with Ali’s passing,” said Mustafa Abdush-Shakur, who travelled from Connecticut. “But there’s no need to be sad for him. We’re all going to make that trip.”