LOUISVILLE: Hundreds of people gathered outside Muhammad Ali’s boyhood home in Kentucky and elsewhere along a funeral procession route on Friday to celebrate the boxing champion who jolted America with his showmanship and won worldwide admiration as a man of principle.
Ali, a once-controversial convert to Islam who lost three years of his boxing career for refusing U.S. military service during the Vietnam War, died a week ago at age 74 as one of the most respected men in the United States.
A hearse embarked on a route through Louisville, Kentucky, that would take Ali’s body past landmarks such as his boyhood home on the West End, traditionally an African-American section of town, and the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum in the center of the Louisville. It was to end at Cave Hill National Cemetery with a private burial.
Thousands of people were later expected to fill the KFC Yum Center for a memorial featuring eulogies by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal, beginning at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT).
Jordan’s King Abdullah had been announced as one of the dignitaries due to attend the sports arena for the service.
Pallbearers will include actor Will Smith, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing the title role in the 2001 film “Ali,” and former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis.
Fans such as Cathy Oost, 61, a retired public school teacher who lives in Louisville, was one of several hundred people to gather under blue skies at the cemetery gates to pay their respects. She held a sign that read “Our Champ, Our Hero.”
Oost said she was struck by Ali’s speaking out for racial equality and his stance against the Vietnam War, plus his defense of Islam. Ali, a three-time world heavyweight champion, also paved the way for black athletes to express themselves with flair and confidence, and gave U.S. Muslims a hero they could share with mainstream America.
“He stood up for his beliefs when it was unpopular and difficult to do so. We all need to do that more,” Oost said.
Bridget McKay, 45, also at the cemetery gates, said she felt drawn to witness history.
“I remember when I was a little girl, all the hype around him,” she said. “He was so boastful and confident about who he was. He made me feel that it was OK to be myself, that I didn’t have to be anyone else.”
After years of restoration to convert his childhood home into a museum, developers finally held a grand opening on May 1.
“They (Ali’s family) wanted to bring Muhammad here for one last visit but his health just wasn’t permitting it, unfortunately,” said co-owner George Bochetto, a former Pennsylvania boxing commissioner.
Visitors this week waited up to 90 minutes to tour the modest pink house, and police estimated 1,500 people lined the small residential street on Friday to see the man known as “The Greatest” come home one last time.
“This is where he started,” said former heavyweight boxer and actor Randall “Tex” Cobb. “He didn’t start in a gym. He didn’t start as Muhammad Ali. He started in this house right here.”
Willie B. Palmer, 75, said he graduated high school with Ali, who was training for the Olympics when he graduated Central High School in 1960.
Ali would train by jogging the bus route to the school.
“Sometimes he’d be there before the bus,” Palmer said.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who attended a Muslim funeral for Ali on Thursday, cut short his visit to Louisville and was no longer taking part in Friday’s event.
Erdogan’s office simply said he had left the United States after a dinner to break the day’s Ramadan fast late on Thursday.
An official in Erdogan’s office denied a report by broadcaster CNN Turk that Erdogan had wanted to lay a cloth on Ali’s coffin, and had wanted the head of Turkey’s religious affairs directorate to recite from the Koran, but that his wishes had been refused.