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Thousands gather for public Muhammad Ali memorial service in Louisville

Published 10/06/2016

Boxing gloves hang on a historical marker outside the childhood home of Muhammad Ali in Louisville (AP)
Boxing gloves hang on a historical marker outside the childhood home of Muhammad Ali in Louisville (AP)
People arrive at Freedom Hall for an Islamic funeral prayer service for Muhammad Ali in Louisville (AP)

Thousands of people have gathered for a huge public memorial service honouring Muhammad Ali in his home city of Louisville, Kentucky.

Some 15,000 tickets sold out for the inter-faith service at the KFC Yum! Centre, which is being broadcast to millions of viewers around the world.

The crowd broke into applause as former US president Bill Clinton walked into the arena holding hands with Ali's widow Lonnie.

Ali died in Phoenix, Arizona, last Friday aged 74.

The three-time world heavyweight champion had been admitted to hospital with a respiratory condition having suffered with Parkinson's disease for 32 years.

Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Louisville for a funeral procession, with chants of "Ali! Ali!" heard along the 19-mile route.

Hollywood actor Will Smith - who played Ali in the 2001 film about the boxer - and former world heavyweight boxing champions Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson were among the pallbearers at the funeral.

A private burial took place at Cave Hill Cemetery.

Friday marks the second day of services honouring Ali. A traditional Islamic prayer ceremony - known as a Jenazah - was held on Thursday at Freedom Hall, where Ali made his professional debut with victory over Tunney Hunsaker in 1960.

Imam Zaid Shakir welcomed the congregation on behalf of the Ali family and "the home of the people's champion", prompting chants of "Ali! Ali" from the crowd.

Dr Kevin Cosby, Protestant minister of Louisville, delivered a rousing speech as told the congregation: "Before James Brown said 'I'm black and I'm proud', Muhammad Ali said 'I'm black and I'm pretty.' Black and pretty was an oxymoron.

"He dared to love black people at a time when black people had problems loving themselves."

Rabbi Michael Lerner received a standing ovation from sections of the crowd after highlighting injustices black people face and saying "the way to honour Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today".

"Speak out and refuse to follow the path of conformity," he said.

Muslim scholar Dr Timothy Gianotti, an adviser to the Ali family, said: "To the family, to Lonnie, to everyone here, serving Muhammad Ali has been one of the greatest privileges of my life."

David Beckham, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Billy Crystal were among the guests attending the star-studded memorial.

Malcolm X's daughter Attallah Shabazz fought back tears as she addressed the crowd before receiving a standing ovation.

She said: "I ask all of you gathered here and from afar to muster up a bit of air to me and the memory of Muhammad Ali.

"Muhammad Ali was the last of a fraternity of amazing men bequeathed to me."

US president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle sent a letter to be read at the service by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who knew Ali personally.

Mr Obama was unable to attend the service as he is in Washington for his daughter Malia's high school graduation ceremony.

In the letter, the president described Ali as "more original and influential than just about anyone of his era".

"His jab knocked some sense into us and pushed us to expand our imagination," he said.

Ali's widow Lonnie took to the stage amid chants of "Ali! Ali!". She said her family were "humbled" by the "heartfelt expressions of love" from around the world since his death.

"Muhammad never stopped loving Louisville and we know Louisville loved Muhammad," she said.

"Muhammad fell in love with the masses and they fell in love with him. He did not fear death.

"Muhammad may have challenged his government but he never ran from it or America. He saw the good soul in every one."

Two of Ali's nine children, daughters Maryum and Rasheda, spoke at the service.

In a direct message to her father, Rasheda said: "You were the greatest father to us. It was God's will to take you home.

"You shook up the world in life. Now you're shaking up the world in death.

"Until we meet again, fly butterfly, fly."

Crystal prompted laughter from the crowd as he impersonated Ali on stage in a moving tribute.

"Thirty five years after he stopped fighting he is still the champion of the world," Crystal said.

"Last week when we heard the news, time stopped. The world took a deep breath and sighed.

"He was the perfect athlete you ever saw ... and those were his own words," Crystal joked.

"He was a tremendous bolt of lightning. His intense light shined on America. He taught us life is best when we build bridges between us, not walls."

Delivering the last speech of the memorial, Mr Clinton described Ali as a "universal soldier of our common humanity".

He said: "I will always think of Muhammad as a truly free man of faith,.

"He refused to be imprisoned by a disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandela was kept in prison in South Africa."

It was reported that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in Louisville and was expected to attend the funeral, had cut short his visit amid claims of a rift with the ceremony's organisers.

Mr Erdogan was initially due to address the funeral but was later removed from the list of speakers after other names were added.

The memorial was live-streamed on the internet and shown at London's 02 Arena, the site of his I Am The Greatest Exhibition.

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