Muhammad Ali: Stars descend on Louisville for funeral service

Thousands of fans invited to interfaith memorial service that boxer spent years planning

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali will be laid to rest today, with a procession through the streets of his home town, Louisville, Kentucky, followed by a public memorial service.

Former US president Bill Clinton and actor Billy Crystal will speak at the memorial, which will take place at the KFC Yum! Center sports arena, named after the fast food chain and its parent company.

Will Smith, who portrayed the boxer in the 2001 film Ali, as well as boxing greats Lennox Lewis, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson, will be among the pallbearers, reports Louisville newspaper the Courier-Journal. The procession will follow the route of the boxer's 1960 Olympic gold medal parade.

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Representatives from several religions, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Mormonism, will also attend.

Ali, who died last Friday at the age of 74 following a long battle with Parkinson's disease, joined the black separatist Nation of Islam as a young athlete, then embraced mainstream Islam years later.

Thousands of people attended a Muslim prayer service yesterday for the three-time heavyweight champion. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was expected to be at today's memorial but apparently cut his trip short after yesterday's service.

Ali had long planned how he wished to say goodbye to the world, detailing his wishes in a document that grew so thick he and his friends began calling it The Book.

"The message that we'll be sending out is not our message – this was really designed by The Champ himself," said Timothy Gianotti, an Islamic studies scholar who helped to plan the services with Ali.

"The love and the reverence and the inclusivity that we're going to experience over the coming days is really a reflection of his message to the people of planet Earth."

One of Ali's wishes was to have ordinary fans at the service, not just VIPs. Accordingly, thousands of public tickets for both yesterday's and today's services were made available.

He will be buried in Cave Hill Cemetery, the final resting place for many other prominent residents of the city, including Colonel Harlan Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Muhammad Ali: Will Smith and Lennox Lewis to carry coffin

07 June

Hollywood actor Will Smith and British boxer Lennox Lewis will be among the pallbearers at the funeral of Muhammad Ali on Friday.

The service is due to take place in Ali's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday. The venue will be the inappropriately-named KFC Yum! Center, a 22,000-capacity basketball arena where thousands of fans are expected to flock to pay their respects. The funeral will also be streamed live on the internet.

Celebrities, athletes and world leaders will be among the mourners, with CNN reporting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah of Jordan will be among the speakers, joining former US president Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal.

However, there is confusion over the running order, with the Times of Israel claiming Ali's family had "bumped" Erdogan and Abdullah from the bill.

As one the pallbearers, London-born Lewis will be the highest profile Briton at the event. He was the last "completely undisputed world heavyweight champion", says the Daily Mail, and was "close to Ali for many years". He, Ali and Evander Holyfield are the only men to have held the heavyweight title three times.

Smith, meanwhile, played Ali in the 2001 film of the same name. The other pallbearers will be Jerry Ellis, the brother of Ali's former sparring partner Jimmy, the late boxer's cousins John Grady and Jan Wadell, his nephew Ibn Ali, former brother-in-law Komawi Ali and family friend John Ramsey, reports the BBC.

Ali was "one of the transcendent figures of the 20th century... who captivated global attention in the 1960s and 1970s", says Reuters, and the world's focus will be on Louisville as he is laid to rest.

There will be "various ceremonies" in the town, reports US news website the Daily Beast, and they will "focus as much on his civil rights stance... as his boxing achievements".

A jenazah - Muslim funeral prayer service - will be held on Thursday, with 14,000 tickets available.

"On Friday, the funeral will be preceded by a procession through the town of Ali's remains," says the Daily Beast. "Ali had originally planned to lie in an open casket and allow people to file past to pay respects, but that was changed to a procession in recent weeks amidst fears for the disruption such an event might cause."

Muhammad Ali: How the world reacted to death of 'The Greatest'

6 June

From the moment Muhammad Ali's death was announced, tributes have poured in as the world grieves for an iconic boxer who also became a leading symbol of the civil rights movement.

The 74-year-old sportsman, often known simply by his self-imposed nickname "The Greatest", died on Saturday at a hospital in Arizona as a result of septic shock after being admitted for respiratory problems.

He will be remembered "not merely as the most talented world heavyweight boxing champion," says the Daily Telegraph, "but also as one of the most irresistible and compelling personalities of his age."

In a fitting testament to that multi-faceted personality, speakers as varied as former US president Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal will be among those giving eulogies at Ali's funeral in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky on Friday.

Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1984, was "courageous in the ring, inspiring to the young, compassionate to those in need, and strong and good-humoured in bearing the burden of his own health challenges", Clinton said in a statement.

His idiosyncratic boxing technique was as memorable as his trademark line of exquisitely crafted trash talk, says Al Jazeera. "A heavyweight with the agility of a lightweight, the feet of a ballet dancer, and the reflexes of a cat, Ali redefined what it meant to be a heavyweight," writes Khaled A Beydoun.

British boxer Amir Khan uploaded a video tribute to his Twitter account in which he called Ali his "hero". His death was a "sad day for boxing", he added.

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Ali's brash, mouthy charisma might have charmed large swathes of white America, says Lawrence Ross at The Root, but to say he "transcended race" is a disservice to his strong sense of black identity.

"David Bowie and Merle Haggard weren’t asked to transcend their whiteness for black people to recognise their importance," Ross writes.

Born Cassius Clay, Ali publicly shed his "slave name" in 1964, when he joined the controversial black separatist group Nation of Islam, although he later left to practise mainstream Islam.

An outspoken voice for civil rights, he was not afraid to offend mainstream America, most notably by refusing to fight in Vietnam War. "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" he said.

He was stripped of his title and unable to renew his boxing license for three years after that. It was a heavy price to pay at the height of his career but it turned Ali into a civil rights hero.

"There will never be another Muhammad Ali," said boxing champion Floyd Mayweather. "The black community all around the world, black people all around the world, needed him. He was the voice for us."

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