Friends, family and fans paid heartbreaking, poignant, and often hilarious final tributes to Muhammad Ali on Friday evening, affirming once and for all why he will always be known as The Greatest.
Wife Lonnie, daughters Maryum and Rasheda, and friends Bryant Gumbel, Billy Crystal, and Bill Clinton were all among those reading eulogies to the man who spent the first half of his life fighting for sport, and the second fighting for justice, equality, and peace.
Bill Clinton, the last to speak, praised Ali not just for his ‘strength and speed’ as a boxer, but for his life after hanging up his gloves, when he refused to bow out and fade away, despite the crippling effect that Parkison’s had on his body.
He said: ‘I spend a lot of my time now as I get older, and older, and older, trying to figure out what makes people tick. How do they turn out the way they do? How do some people avoid being victims and rise from defeat?
‘I think he decided very young to write his own life story. I think he decided before he could have possibly worked it all out and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided that he would not be unempowered
‘He decided that not his race, nor his place, nor the expectations of others would strip from him the power to write his own story.’
Bill Clinton spoke at the memorial service for Muhammad Ali in Louisville today, praising the three-time heavyweight world champion not just for his incredible sporting career, but for his life outside the ring too
Billy Crystal recalled one impression he delivered for the champion’s retirement party summarizing his entire career, after which Ali told him: ‘You made my life better than it was.’ Speaking of Ali, Crystal said: ‘But didn’t he make all our lives a little bit better than they were?’
Sportscaster Bryant Gumbel summarized the loss os Ali, saying that ‘the world needs a champion like Ali now… but this time our beloved champion is down and he won’t get up’, while daughter Maryum read a poem entitled ‘Our dear father’ in honor of Ali’s rhyming talents
Lonnie Ali, the boxing great’s wife at the time of his death, also delivered a moving eulogy for the champion as thousands gathered for the memorial service which was held in public to honor Ali’s connection with ordinary people
Rasheda Ali-Walsh, one of Muhammad Ali’s daughters, is overcome with emotion after delivering her eulogy at the memorial service
John Ramsey, a TV and radio personality, as well as a close family friend of Ali, recalled one of the champion’s many memorable quotes, saying: ‘He once said, “Serving others is the rent you pay for your place here on earth.” Well your rent is paid in full.’
Clinton said that Ali’s greatest strength, beyond his mere skill as a boxer, was the fact that he never let anyone dictate the terms of his life
Thousands of people gathered at the KFC Yum! center in Ali’s hometown of Louisville to pay tribute to the boxing great
The memorial service was held on Friday evening after a private family funeral earlier in the day, followed by a procession through Louisville (pictured, a man wearing an Ali t-shirt listens to eulogies)
He continued: ‘I will always think of Muhammad as a truly free man of faith. Being a man of faith he realized he would never be in full control of his life. But being free he realized that life was still open to choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that bring us all here today in prayer and love.
‘The first part of his life was determined by his truly unique gifts. We should never forget them. But the second part of his life was more important because he refused to be imprisoned by a disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandela was in prison.
‘He professed gifts that we all have. Every single one of us have gifts of mettle and heart, he just found ways to to release them.’
Billy Crystal, a friend of Ali’s for more than 40 years, paid an emotional tribute to The Greatest, saying: ‘Thirty five years after he stopped fighting, he is still the champion of the world.
‘Last week when we heard the news the world stopped. There were no wars, no terrorists, no suffering – the world took a breath and sighed.’
Recalling his favorite moment with Ali, he described being at the champion’s retirement party in 1979 when he did an impression of the boxer spanning his entire career, from his teens to his 30s.
Afterwards, he said Ali came up to him and whispered in his ear: ‘Little brother, you made my life better than it was.’ Speaking of Ali, Crystal added: ‘But didn’t he make all our lives a little bit better than they were?’
Concluding his speech, Crystal compared Ali to ‘a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty.
‘We’ve seen still photographs of lightning at the moment of impact, ferocious in its strength, magnificent in its elegance. And at the moment of impact it lights up everything around it so you can see everything clearly. Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night.
‘Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves. This brash young man thrilled us, angered us, confused us, challenged us, ultimately became a silent messenger of peace and taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people and not walls.’
Also paying tribute was sportscaster Bryant Grumbel, who marked the enormity of Ali’s loss by saying: ‘The world needs Ali now. The world needs a champion who always works to bring the economic and social divisions that split our nation to the fore.
‘We need the strength, the hope, the passion and the conviction. But this time our beloved champion is down, and he won’t get up. Not this time. Not ever again. I am convinced, now more than ever, that Ali was The Greatest.’
Mike Tyson (far left), Lenox Lewis (second left) and Will Smith (far right) all acted as pallbearers for Ali’s funeral, a private ceremony which took place ahead of the memorial service in the evening
Members of the boxer’s family (left image), including son Asaad (far left), wife Lonnie (second left), and daughters Rasheda (third right) and Maryum (right) listen to speakers at the memorial service, alongside dignitaries (right image) including Bill Clinton (far right), Billy Crystal (second right), and Bryant Gumbel (third left)
Muhammad Ali’s daughters Hana Ali (left) and Maryum Ali (right) arrives for his memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center on Friday
Arrivals: Former President Bill Clinton arrives to give the eulogy at Muhammad Ali’s memorial service in Louisville, Kentucky on Friday
Whoopi Goldberg was among the celebrity attendees of Friday evening’s memorial service, which was also open to the public because his family said he was a ‘man of the people’
Actor Will Smith arrives for Muhammad Ali’s memorial service. He was one of the pallbearers who carried Ali’s casket earlier in the day
Soccer player David Beckham, left, arrives for Muhammad Ali’s memorial service on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky
Actor and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, center, arrives for Muhammad Ali’s public funeral on Friday
Basketball Hall of Fame Coach Pat Riley and former football star Ray Lewis greet each other while making their way into the memorial
Hip-hop artist Common makes his way into the memorial service alongside the likes of Whoopi Goldberg (right)
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai (center) arrives for the Muhammad Ali funeral service on Friday and stops to speak with US boxing promoter Don King (far right)
Wife Lonnie, alongside daughters Maryum and Rasheda, also paid emotional tributes to the three-time heavyweight champion of the world, while family friend John Ramsey recalled one of the boxer’s many memorable quotes, saying: ‘He once said, “Serving others is the rent you pay for your place here on earth.”
‘Well your rent is paid in full,’ he added. ‘Your rent is paid in full. And thanks to you, our rent is paid as well.’
The memorial, at the 18,000-capacity KFC Yum! Center in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, got underway with Hamzah Abdul Malik leading mourners in a recitation of verses from the Quran.
Actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, rapper/actor Common, and former NFL Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis could be seen pulling up to a VIP side entrance at the for the service and were greeted by cheers from onlookers standing about three rows deep.
That was only the beginning of the celeb parade, as producer/director Spike Lee, NBC Today host Matt Lauer, NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Beckham and Spike Lee arrived soon after.
Most exited their limos away from fans and the media, but Abdul-Jabbar did step out and wave to the crowd, unable to hide his 7-foot-2 frame.
The service started with a scripture reading from the Quran and a translation in English before those selected to speak about Ali shared their stories.
Louisville pastor Kevin Cosby said Muhammad Ali loved everyone, whether they lived in the penthouse or the projects. He was among several faith leaders who spoke at the memorial service on Friday in Louisville.
Cosby said Ali infused African-Americans with a ‘sense of somebodiness.’ He said that just as James Brown declared ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ Ali proclaimed ‘I’m black and I’m pretty.’
‘He dared to affirm the beauty of blackness, the power and the capacity of African Americans, he dared to love America’s unloved race and we love us and we loved him because he loved us. Whether you lived in the slums, whether you came from the penthouse or projects, he loved you,’ Cosby said.
He said the boxing great ‘dared to affirm the power and capacity of African-Americans.’