By Nick Carey and Steve Bittenbender
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) – Muhammad Ali was extolled on Friday as a boxer of incomparable grace, a magnetic entertainer and a man of conviction who gave a voice to the oppressed, as a two-day celebration of “The Greatest” came to a rousing end in his Kentucky hometown.
At an emotional memorial service at a Louisville sports arena, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal, Ali’s wife Lonnie and leaders of many of the world’s religious traditions delivered powerful tributes to the man who Clinton called a “universal soldier for our common humanity.”
“He decided at a very young age to write his own life story,” the former president said. “He decided he would never be disempowered.”
Earlier in the day, an estimated 100,000 people came out to honor Ali on a hot and sunny day, chanting his name and throwing flowers along the 23-mile (37-km) funeral procession. At the end of the route, he was laid to rest in a private burial, one week after he died at the age of 74.
At the interfaith service, A-list celebrities and sports stars converged with thousands of ordinary people to hear Ali remembered as a man who went from Olympic gold medal winner in 1960 to three-time world heavyweight champion to an elder statesman suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Ali, who was once scorned for converting to Islam and lost three years of his boxing career for refusing U.S. military service during the Vietnam War, ended up becoming one of the most celebrated Americans in modern history, at home and abroad.
“What does it say of a man, any man, that he can go from being viewed as one of his country’s most polarizing figures to arguably its most beloved?” sportscaster Bryant Gumbel told the service, which was led by Iman Abdul Shakir, one of Ali’s spiritual mentors.
One of his enduring contributions was to restore pride in African Americans after centuries of being denied a sense of “somebody-ness,” said Rev. Kevin Cosby, senior pastor of St. Stephen Church in Louisville.
“Before James Brown said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ Muhammad Ali said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty,’ Cosby said, comparing the boastful boxer to the “Godfather of Soul.” Ali “dared to love black people at a time when black people had a problem loving themselves.”
The event proved to be a rare combination of politics, sports, entertainment and religion, a testimony of Ali’s impact on so many aspects of life.
At times, it took on a decidedly political tone.
The crowd cheered when Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish interfaith magazine Tikkun, made a rousing reference to Hillary Clinton, Bill’s wife and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Lerner also took a swipe at Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who has called for a temporary ban on foreign Muslims entering the country.
“We will not tolerate politicians or anyone else putting down Muslims and blaming Muslims for a few people,” said Lerner.
‘TREMENDOUS BOLT OF LIGHTNING’
Ali had laid out the plans for his own funeral many years before. Boxers, actors, old friends and even Jordan’s King Abdullah came to Louisville, while Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attended the Muslim funeral on Thursday and did not stay for the Friday event, as had been planned.
Adding levity to the service was Crystal, who reprised bits of his trademark comedy routine in which he imitates Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell, an important early supporter of Ali during his most polarizing years.
“He was funny, he was beautiful, he was the most perfect athlete that you ever saw … and those were his own words,” said Crystal, a longtime pal who Ali called “my little brother.”
But Crystal also highlighted Ali’s significance as a cultural force, a conscience of the country at a time of sweeping social change.
“He was a tremendous bolt of lightning created by Mother Nature out of thin air,” he said. “Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night. Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves.”
Hours before the indoor ceremony, some 1,500 people gathered outside Ali’s boyhood home in a traditionally African-American section of town, awaiting the procession. As Ali’s hearse arrived, police standing shoulder-to-shoulder cleared a path, much like a fighter’s entourage clears his way to the ring.
The hearse stopped at the pink house as the people, many of whom waited in the sun for more than three hours, chanted his name.
“It was important for me to be here,” said Matt Alexander, 63, who traveled from Florida. “I cried like a baby when I heard he’d died. I just didn’t want to believe it because I wanted him to live forever.”
(Writing by Daniel Trotta and Frank McGurty; Editing by Mary Milliken)