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Thousands Gather To Celebrate The Life Of 'The Greatest' Muhammad Ali


Thousands of people paid their respects as the hearse carrying the body of Muhammad Ali passed through Louisville, Ky., on Friday. The procession traveled past Ali's boy-hood home, along the boulevard that's been named for him and finally, to the cemetery. A memorial service followed, a service that Ali himself insisted include all faiths. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Ali, Ali, Ali.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Thousands of people chanted his name and threw flowers as the hearse went by. Essentially, the entire city celebrated. Bus signs flashed The Greatest, downtown billboards celebrated the champ, hundreds of volunteers wore T-shirts reading, I am Ali. Dick Green traveled from Youngstown, Ohio.

DICK GREEN: He was a great man. There never be nobody like him again, no matter who it is. As far as boxing and the black movement, equal justice and equality, period.

GLINTON: Michael Holt grew up in the same neighborhood as Ali. He said this week felt like saying goodbye to a friend.

MICHAEL HOLT: He was the greatest to me. And I love him, man, with all my heart.

GLINTON: Muhammad Ali had approved the plans for his own funeral held at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center. The arena was filled with dignitaries and nearly 15,000 mourners. At least half a dozen former boxing champions were in the audience. And on the dais, the service was led by an imam, but there were representatives from nearly every other religion. There was a priest, two rabbis, Buddhist monks, among others. Local Baptist minister Kevin Cosby described Ali as not belonging to any group but a gift from black Americans to the world.


KEVIN COSBY: Let us never forget that he is the product of black people in their struggle to be free.


GLINTON: Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, spoke of her feelings of personal loss.


ATTALLAH SHABAZZ: Having Muhammad Ali in my life somehow sustained my dad's breath for me just a little while longer, 51 years longer until now.

GLINTON: The mood was reflective, but there were laughs, like from Billy Crystal, who became famous for his Ali impression.


BILLY CRYSTAL: I come in voop-voop,voop (ph). And then I rope a dope. I rope a dope, George. And I'm still fast at 33 years of age. I'm so fast I can turn out the lights, be in my bed before the room gets dark.


GLINTON: Crystal spoke of his nearly 40-year relationship with the champ, describing his wit, humor and constant bragging.


CRYSTAL: He did things nobody would do. He predicted the round that he would knock somebody out in, and then he would do it. He was funny. He was beautiful. He was the most perfect athlete you ever saw. And those were his own words.

GLINTON: Former President Bill Clinton praised Muhammad Ali as being a man of faith. And he focused on Ali's activism, generosity and in the end what became Ali's longest fight against Parkinson's disease.


BILL CLINTON: 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 kept in prison in South Africa.


GLINTON: It was the struggles of Muhammad Ali outside of the boxing ring that drew the most cheers - his commitment to his faith, his objection to the Vietnam War. The TV journalist Bryant Gumbel said Ali gave black men permission to speak out for themselves.


BRYANT GUMBEL: Some of us like him took pride in being black, bold and brash. And because we were so unapologetic, we were, in the eyes of many, way too uppity. We were way too arrogant. Yet, we reveled in being like him.

GLINTON: I mean, who wouldn't want to be like Muhammad Ali? He was, after all, the greatest. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.