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100,000 line the Louisville streets for Muhammad Ali's final journey

Published 11/06/2016

Muhammad Ali's wife Lonnie Ali speaks during his memorial service (AP)
Muhammad Ali's wife Lonnie Ali speaks during his memorial service (AP)

The Greatest was laid to rest in his home town after an all-day send-off that was a lot like Muhammad Ali himself - serious at times, but also exuberant, bracingly political, and funny.

Ali made one final journey through the city he adored via a fist-pumping funeral procession through the streets of Louisville.

The burial was followed by a star-studded memorial service where the boxing great was eulogised as a brash and wildly charismatic breaker of racial barriers.

"He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty," comedian Billy Crystal said in an address that had the crowd of about 15,000 laughing at nearly every turn.

The more than three-hour memorial capped nearly a full day of mourning in Louisville for Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion of the world who died last week at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

An estimated 100,000 people holding signs and chanting, "Ali! Ali!" lined the streets as a hearse carrying his cherry-red casket made its way past his childhood home to Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery, where a private burial service was held.

"He stood up for himself and for us, even when it wasn't popular," said Ashia Powell, waiting to catch a glimpse of the funeral procession for the man the city once knew as Cassius Clay, before he converted to Islam and shed what he called his slave name.

The public memorial at the KFC Yum! Centre was packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former president Bill Clinton, director Spike Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, football star David Beckham and Whoopi Goldberg.

Speaker after speaker paid tribute to Ali as a fearless man of principle, someone who went from being one of the most polarising figures of the 20th century to one of the most beloved, a source of black pride and a symbol of professional excellence.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, brought the crowd to its feet four times with a fiery speech in which he referred to Ali's refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War - a stand that cost him his boxing title.

He said: "Ali stood up to immoral war, risked fame to speak truth to power. The way to honour him is to be like him today."

Earlier in the day, Ali's casket, draped with an Islamic tapestry, was loaded into a hearse outside a funeral home.

The pallbearers included former boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and actor Will Smith, who played Ali in the movies.

Ali's nine children, his widow, Lonnie, two of his ex-wives and other family members accompanied the body to the cemetery on the 19-mile drive past the little pink house where he grew up and the museum that bears his name.

At one point, the motorcade travelled along Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

As the long line of black limousines rolled past, fans chanted like spectators at one of his fights, pumped their fists, stood on cars, held up mobile phones and signs, ran alongside the hearse and reached out to touch it.

They tossed so many flowers onto the windscreen that the driver had to push some of them aside to see the road.

Others fell silent and looked on reverently as the champ went by.

"I've been crying all week," said Mike Stallings, of Louisville, who brought his two young sons to bid farewell.

"As big as he was he never looked down on people. He always mingled among the crowds."

Ali chose the cemetery as his final resting place a decade ago. Family spokesman Bob Gunnell said he will have a simple headstone, inscribed only "Ali," in keeping with Islamic tradition.

Ali himself decided years ago that his funeral would be open to ordinary fans, not just VIPs.

As a result, thousands of free tickets to the memorial were made available and were snatched up within an hour.

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