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Muhammad Ali Memorial Service: Louisville Buries A Beloved Son

A hometown hero is being laid to rest in Louisville, Ky., as Muhammad Ali, the boxer and humanitarian, is buried Friday. Fans came to the city from far and wide to pay their respects as Ali's body passed by on its way to a private burial.

Ali died one week ago, at age 74; at a memorial service in the KFC Yum Center in downtown Louisville, the friends he'd chosen to speak — including Billy Crystal, Bryant Gumbel and Sen. Orrin Hatch — discussed Ali's talents and, more especially, his expansive humanity and his navigation of a troubled era in America's history.

You can hear the event as part of an NPR special hosted by Melissa Block (see link above). The memorial also featured eulogies from Ali's wife, Lonnie, and Louisville restaurateur John Ramsey. Religious and cultural leaders also spoke. The final eulogy was delivered by former President Bill Clinton.

Update at 5:55 p.m. ET: Bill Clinton

Clinton begins his remarks by picturing what Ali might say: "Well, I thought I should be eulogized by at least one president."

He then tells Lonnie Ali, "I thank you for making the second half of his life greater than the first."

Clinton says he hopes every young person present will do what Ali did: "write his own story."

He recalls being a kid thinking about how smart Ali was. Despite being a "universal solider for our common humanity," Clinton says that he always thought of Ali as a "truly free man of faith."

He later adds that the second half of Ali's life was the most important, in part because he refused to be imprisoned by Parkinson's disease.

As part of his recollections about Ali, Clinton says the former boxer once broke up a serious speech the former president was giving by putting two fingers up behind Clinton's head as he spoke.

Near the end of his speech, Clinton recalls watching Ali light the Olympic flame in Atlanta back in 1996 — and in a rousing moment, he says he was convinced beyond a doubt that Ali, hands and legs trembling, would light the torch and start the competition for hundreds of the world's best athletes.

Update at 5:45 p.m. ET: Bryant Gumbel

After saying that Ali's legacy will include how he made people feel, Gumbel says that for young black men who were struggling to make the most of their lives, Ali "gave us levels of strength and courage we didn't even know we had."

Gumbel praises Ali for taking on — and overcoming — difficult struggles without changing his nature or become anything other than what he was.

Then he quotes musician Lauryn Hill: "Consequence is no coincidence."

Update at 5:30 p.m. ET: Billy Crystal

"Thank you ladies and gentlemen — we're at the halfway point," Crystal says, drawing a laugh from the crowd that's now been in the arena for hours.

He then says that when Ali died, "the world stopped," and Crystal thought back to when they first met in 1974.

At the time, Crystal says, he was a young comedian whose act included an imitation of Ali and legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell.

Crystal also recalls Ali's strong stance against the Vietnam War — a conflict that was sending America's young men like him off to war.

"It was Ali who stood up for us," Crystal said, "by standing up for himself."

Crystal then re-creates the Cosell-Ali bit that centered on the bout with George Foreman in Zaire.

"When I was done, he gave me this big bear hug," Crystal says, "and he whispered in my ear, 'You're my little brother.' "

It became what Ali always called Crystal.

Ali's message, Crystal says, was that "Life is best when you build bridges between people — not walls."

"He is gone, but he will never die; he was my big brother," Crystal says.

Update at 5:20 p.m. ET: John Ramsey Of Louisville's Ringside Cafe

Praising his ties to Louisville, Ramsey breaks into an Ali impression to say, "How can we lose, with the stuff we use?"

He then talks about "the Ali magic" — the boxer's ability to connect with people.

Ramsey recalls how he visited the 2000 Olympics with Ali — and how after a boxing match, as cameras caught Ali posing with the winner of the fight, Ali insisted they go visit the loser.

Describing the scene of a bloodied athlete who had been left alone, Ramsey says the young man immediately brightened when Ali walked in.

"I saw what you did out there, you looked good," the Champ told the kid, according to Ramsey.

When Ramsey later praised Ali's courtesy and thoughtfulness by saying, "Muhammad, you're the greatest," the boxing legend's answer was simple: "Man, tell me something I don't already know."

Ramsey, you might be able to tell, has a knack for telling stories.

Update at 4:55 p.m. ET: Lonnie Ali

After taking the podium to a loud welcome, Ali's widow, Lonnie, wearing a broad black hat that obscures her eyes, thanks everyone who has come to honor and say farewell to her husband. And she thanks people from around the world who've sent prayers via social media.

Recounting the story of how a police officer named Joe Martin helped a 12-year-old Cassius Clay get interested in boxing, Lonnie says it's a reminder that "when a cop and an inner-city kid talk to each other, then miracles can happen."

She then goes on to recount the times Ali faced, from the death of Emmett Till, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to the reign of apartheid in South Africa.

The message, she says, is that "adversity can make you stronger" — that it shouldn't "rob you of your dreams."

Update at 4:45 p.m. ET: Valerie Jarrett

White House special adviser Valerie Jarrett, who will read a statement from President Obama, notes that her family has a connection to Ali via her uncle.

She then reads a letter from Obama that recalls 1980, when Ali was set on one last comeback, against Larry Holmes.

Valerie Jarrett, speaking on behalf of President Obama during the memorial service, noted the love people had for the champ, saying, "You couldn't have made him up — and yes, he was pretty, too."
Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images
Getty Images
Valerie Jarrett, speaking on behalf of President Obama during the memorial service, noted the love people had for the champ, saying, "You couldn't have made him up — and yes, he was pretty, too."

In the letter, Obama notes that at 4 a.m., after Ali had lost the fight, an attendant at the boxing ring told a reporter that he had bet on Ali, despite the long odds against him. When asked why, the man said, "I owe the man for giving me my dignity."

Continuing to read the president's message about Ali, Jarrett notes the love people had for the champ, and says, "You couldn't have made him up — and yes, he was pretty, too."

Jarrett later adds that Ali was a brash and loud voice "in a Jim Crow world."

Noting Ali's anti-war stance in the 1960s, Jarrett says Ali was intent on helping others who were struggling, rather than leave the country on his own to escape being stripped of his boxing career.

The message from Obama then notes how Ali lent his dignity to many in America — and helped inspire Obama to believe he could be president.

Update at 4:40 p.m. ET: Attallah Shabazz

Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, discusses Ali's relationship with her father.

"As the last of the fraternity reaches the heavens," Shabazz says, she pines for a "tribe" of people with purpose and confidence and glory.

Citing her father's familiar farewell — "May we meet again in the light of understanding" — Shabazz says she hopes that can happen, "by any means necessary."

Update at 4:10 p.m. ET: Chief Sidney Hill and Chief Oren Lyons

Chief Sidney Hill, Tadodaho of Onondaga Indian Nation, speaks next, along with Chief Oren Lyons, the Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation.

Lyons says they've come to honor Ali's work "and for the rights and dignity of people of color and the common man."

He adds that Ali always supported indigenous people's rights in the U.S.

"We know what he was up against," Lyons says of Ali, "because we've had 524 years of survival training, ourselves."

Update at 4 p.m. ET: Rabbi Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner recounts how both he and Ali were indicted on federal charges for their stances on the Vietnam War. He then says Ali's stature grew beyond boxing because of his moral integrity, his willingness to risk everything.

"How do we honor Muhammad Ali?" Lerner asked.

"The way to honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali," Lerner says — something he says includes speaking truth to power.

Lerner then receives rounds of applause as he reels off a list of social issues that need to be addressed — from wealth redistribution to fair sentencing to banning corporate and private money from politics.

Update at 3:45 p.m. ET: Muslim Scholar Speaks

Serving Muhammad Ali, Muslim scholar Dr. Timothy Gianotti says, was "one of the greatest privileges of my life."

Gianotti is the director of the Islamic Institute for Spiritual Formation in Ontario, Canada.

Update at 3:38 p.m. ET: Sen. Hatch Speaks

The initial group of eight speakers includes Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. He began by recounting Ali's words after beating Sonny Liston: "I am the greatest."

Hatch then says, "In the world of boxing, he truly was the greatest."

He then adds that he became a personal friend of Ali's after the boxer came to visit him on Capitol Hill. And he acknowledges that their friendship most likely puzzled observers.

"We were both devoted to our families, and devoted to our faiths," Hatch says.

"Our differences fortified our friendship," he adds, "they did not define it."

Our original post continues:

Sen. Orrin Hatch speaks during Muhammad Ali's memorial service in Louisville, Ky. Hatch said they became friends after the boxer came to visit him on Capitol Hill and that their friendship most likely puzzled observers.
David Goldman / AP
Sen. Orrin Hatch speaks during Muhammad Ali's memorial service in Louisville, Ky. Hatch said they became friends after the boxer came to visit him on Capitol Hill and that their friendship most likely puzzled observers.

The official program highlights this quote from Ali:

"Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth."

Ali will be buried at the Cave Hill Cemetery, in a private ceremony. But today is a celebration of a man who fought battles in and outside the ring. It was the boxer's own wish for his funeral to offer a chance for his legions of fans to say farewell.

Thousands of well-wishers got a chance to see the black Cadillac bearing Ali's body today; spectators tossed flowers onto the hood and windshield of the car. The hearse drove past Ali's boyhood home and onto the street that was named for him.

One person held a sign reading, "Thanks for all the memories."

From member station WFPL comes the full program for the event:


  • Hamzah Abdul Malik

  • Ayah Kutmah

  • Imam Zaid Shakir

  • Kevin Cosby
  • Sen. Orrin Hatch
  • Msgr. Henry Kriegel
  • Timothy Gianotti
  • Rabbi Michael Lerner
  • Chief Sidney Hill and Chief Oren Lyons
  • Rabbi Joe Rapport
  • Venerable Utsumi and Sister Denise

  • Ambassador Shabazz
  • Valerie Jarrett — statement from President Obama

  • Lonnie Ali
  • Maryum Ali
  • Rasheda Ali-Walsh
  • Alessandra "Ali" DiNicola
  • Natasha Mundkur
  • John Ramsey
  • Billy Crystal
  • Bryant Gumbel
  • President William J. Clinton

  • Imam Zaid Shakir
  • And here are the pallbearers for Ali's public funeral:

  • Kamawi Ali
  • Ibn Ali
  • Gene Dibble Jr.
  • Jerry Ellis
  • John Grady
  • Lennox Lewis
  • John Ramsey
  • Will Smith
  • Mike Tyson
  • Jan Waddell

  • Rahaman Ali
  • Victor Bender
  • Howard Bingham
  • The Honorable John Y. Brown
  • George Chuvalo
  • Ronald DiNicola
  • George Foreman
  • Larry Holmes
  • Gene Kilroy
  • Jerry Perenchio
  • Michael Phenner
  • Harvey Sloane
  • Cleve Walker
  • Harlan Werner
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.