LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Louisville and the rest of the world said goodbye to The Greatest on Friday, showering affection on Muhammad Ali during a fist-pumping funeral procession through the streets of his hometown.
The funeral procession for Muhammad Ali heads down a boulevard named after him Friday prior to a memorial service in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. An estimated crowd of 100,000 packed the streets to honor Ali, who died June 3 after a short stay in a Scottsdale, Ariz., hospital because of a respiratory illness.
A fan poses with a drawing of Muhammad Ali as spectators await the arrival of Ali’s funeral procession to enter Cave Hill Cemetery on Friday in Louisville, Ky.
The 19-mile route was followed by a star-studded memorial service where he was saluted as a brash and outspoken breaker of racial barriers.
An estimated 100,000 people holding signs and chanting, "Ali! Ali!" lined the streets as a hearse carrying his cherry-red casket made its way past his childhood home to Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery, where a private graveside service was held for the three-time heavyweight champion of the world.
"He stood up for himself and for us, even when it wasn't popular," said Ashia Powell, waiting at a railing for the funeral procession to pass by on an interstate highway below.
The memorial service was held at a sports arena packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal, Sen. Orrin Hatch, director Spike Lee, former NFL great Jim Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, soccer star David Beckham, Whoopi Goldberg and NBA hall of famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Crystal cracked everyone up with his career-making impersonation of a boastful, fast-talking Ali -- and his imitation of Ali's foil, sportscaster Howard Cosell -- and rhapsodized about Ali's charisma, outspokenness and talent, calling the boxing great "a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air."
"He was funny. He was beautiful. He was the most perfect athlete you ever saw," the comedian said. "And those were his own words."
Kevin Cosby, pastor of a Louisville church, told the crowd of up to 15,000 people at the KFC Yum! Center that Ali "dared to affirm the power and capacity of African-Americans" and infused them with a "sense of somebodiness."
Rabbi Michael Lerner, a political activist and editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun, brought the crowd to its feet four times with a fiery speech in which he referred to Ali's refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War -- a stand that cost him his boxing title.
"Ali stood up to immoral war, risked fame to speak truth to power. The way to honor him is to be like him today," Lerner said, railing against anti-Muslim bigotry, drone attacks, the gap between rich and poor and racist policing.
Ali died June 3 at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.
The casket, draped with an Islamic tapestry, was loaded into a hearse outside a funeral home. The pallbearers included former boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and actor Will Smith, who played Ali in a movie. Ali's nine children, his widow, two of his ex-wives and other family members accompanied the body to the cemetery.
As the long line of black limousines rolled past, fans chanted like spectators at one of his fights, pumped their fists, stood on cars, held up cellphones and signs, ran alongside the hearse and reached out to touch it. They tossed so many flowers onto the windshield that the driver had to push some of them aside to see the road.
Others fell silent and looked on reverently as the champ went by.
"I've been crying all week," said Mike Stallings of Louisville, who brought his two young sons to bid farewell to the sports legend who grew up as Cassius Clay. "As big as he was he never looked down on people. He always mingled among the crowds."
Ali chose the cemetery 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 he will have a simple headstone, inscribed only "Ali," in keeping with Islamic tradition.
Ali himself decided years ago that his funeral would be open to ordinary fans, not just VIPs. As a result, thousands of free tickets to Friday's memorial were made available and were snatched up within an hour.
Ali's widow, Lonnie, in her first public remarks since his death, took the stage in an oversized hat that shielded her eyes.
"Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted to use his life and his death as a teaching moment. He wanted to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice," she said. "He never became bitter enough to quit or engage in violence."
Sports on 06/11/2016