LOUISVILLE, June 6, (AFP): The family of late boxing legend Muhammad Ali and the city of Louisville on Monday prepared for his public funeral later this week, which organizers said “The Greatest” helped plan himself as a “last statement” to the world.
Former president Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal are among those due to speak Friday at the public memorial in a sports arena in the Kentucky hometown of the three-time world heavyweight champion.
The charismatic Ali, a dazzling fighter and outspoken civil rights activist who became one of the 20th century’s most towering figures, died last Friday at age 74 after health problems complicated by a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
The service will be preceded by an Islamic prayer service and family funeral on Thursday, organizers said.
The following day, Ali’s coffin — which arrived in Louisville on Sunday aboard a private plane, accompanied by his wife and other relatives — will be paraded through the streets of Louisville, so fans from around the world can say goodbye.
“The message that we’ll be sending out is not our message, this was really designed and intended by the Champ himself to be his last statement to the people of planet Earth,” Islamic studies scholar Timothy Gianotti told reporters in Louisville.
“The love and the reverence and inclusivity that we are going to experience over the coming days is really a reflection of his message.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will attend Friday’s ceremonies and has asked to speak, family spokesman Bob Gunnell said.
In Turkey, a presidential source told AFP: “We confirm that the president will travel to Louisville, Kentucky to attend boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s funeral. He leaves Wednesday evening.”
“Everything we’re doing here was blessed by Muhammad Ali and was requested,” Gunnell said.
“He wanted the memorial service to reflect his life and how he lived. He wanted everyone to be able to attend. He was the people’s champ and so he wanted that memorial service to reflect that.”
The official cause of Ali’s death was septic shock due to unspecified natural causes.
Gunnell said Ali had sought medical attention for a cough, but his condition rapidly deteriorated. He was admitted to a hospital in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, where he had lived for several years with his wife Lonnie.
Ali’s family ultimately removed him from life support on Friday, Gunnell said.
“I’m obviously really sad. But I have been sad for a long time, just watching my father struggling with Parkinson’s disease,” Ali’s daughter Laila, who followed in his footsteps into the boxing ring, told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“I have comfort in knowing that he’s not suffering anymore,” she said in comments aired Monday.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer called Ali “a supernatural figure who crossed all kinds of boundaries, from athletics to arts, to humanitarian activities, from black to white, from Christians to Islam, and he belongs to the world.”
“There will be people coming from all over,” he told AFP on Sunday, saying the city was prepared to welcome massive crowds.
Ali’s career stretched from 1960 to 1981 and he retired with a record of 56-5, including such historic bouts as the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in 1974 in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).
“He hit me with a quick one-two, knocked me down to the canvas and my whole life changed,” Foreman told CNN of the epic “Rumble.”
“I was devastated,” he said. “Little did I know I would make the best friend I ever had in my life.”
Other defining moments of Ali’s career included two knockouts of Sonny Liston and his rivalry with Joe Frazier.
Ali — born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr on January 17, 1942 — dazzled fans with slick moves in the ring and his wit and engaging persona outside it.
He famously said he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
He took the name of Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam in 1964, soon after he had stunned the sport by claiming the world title with a monumental upset of Liston.
Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War saw him prosecuted for draft evasion, and led to him being effectively banned for boxing for three years of his prime. The US Supreme Court overturned his conviction for draft dodging in 1971.
Ali held firm to his beliefs and eventually earned accolades as a civil rights activist.
He received the highest US civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2005 and was chosen to light the Olympic torch in 1996, his hands trembling due to Parkinson’s — a poignant moment for the sports world.
Ali will be buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.