Louisville - Muhammad Ali and his innermost
circle started a document years ago that grew so thick they began calling it
Its contents will soon be revealed.
In the pages, the boxing great planned in
exacting detail how he wished to say goodbye to the world.
"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 for years helped to plan the
services. "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."
The 74-year-old three-time heavyweight
champion wanted the memorial service in an arena. He wanted multiple religions
to have a voice while honouring the traditions of his Muslim faith. And he
wanted ordinary fans to attend, not just VIPs.
He was never downcast when talking about
his death, said Bob Gunnell, an Ali family spokesman. He recalled Ali's own
words during meetings planning the funeral: "It's OK. We're here to do the
job the way I want it. It's fine."
The final revisions were made days before
Ali died Friday at an Arizona hospital, his family by his side.
For years, the plan was to have Ali's body
lie in repose at the Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, Gunnell said. That
tribute was dropped at the last minute because his wife, Lonnie, worried it
would cause the centre to be shut down and knew people would want to gather
there in grief.
In its place, a miles-long procession was
added that will carry Ali's body across his beloved hometown. It will drive
past the museum built in his honour, along the boulevard named after him and
through the neighbourhood where he grew up, raced bicycles and shadowboxed down
In a city accustomed to capturing the
world's attention for just two minutes during the Kentucky Derby each year,
Ali's memorial service Friday looms as one of the most historic events in
Louisville's history. Former presidents, heads of nations from around the
globe, movie stars and sports greats will descend upon the city to pay final
respects to The Louisville Lip.
"It's been a really bittersweet time
for our city," Mayor Greg Fischer said. "We've all been dreading the
passing of The Champ, but at the same time we knew ultimately it would come. It
was selfish for us to think that we could hold on to him forever. Our job now,
as a city, is to send him off with the class and dignity and respect that he
Former President Bill Clinton, a long-time
friend, will deliver the eulogy at the funeral at the KFC Yum! Centre, where
the 15 000 seats are likely to be filled.
Others speakers will include
representatives of multiple faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity,
Buddhism and Mormonism.
Some are lifelong friends. Others Ali
Rabbi Michael Lerner was in his office at
his home in Berkley, California, on Sunday morning when, out of the blue,
Ronald DiNicola, president of Muhammad Ali Enterprises, called and invited the
rabbi to speak at the funeral.
He and Ali met in the 1960s as two vocal
opponents to the Vietnam War. They did not see each other again. But DiNicola
told Lerner that for the rest of the boxer's life, Ali admired the rabbi's work
as editor of the Jewish progressive magazine Tikkun and author of numerous
"I didn't know that he continued to
follow my work; I certainly followed him, what he was doing and the courage he
did it with," Lerner said. "I am extremely honoured and extremely
He and the other faith leaders will be
followed by Ali's wife, daughter Maryum Ali, actor Billy Crystal, sports caster
Bryant Gumbel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II of
Most downtown hotel rooms were already
booked by Monday afternoon, and those in the rest of the city were selling out
fast, said Stacey Yates of the city's tourism bureau.
At the city's iconic Brown Hotel, the
Muhammad Ali Suite, an opulent gold-and-black room dedicated in 2001 by The
Greatest himself, was already booked. The hotel declined to say who would be
All over town, Louisville residents have
been finding ways to pay tribute to their city's favourite son. The Muhammad
Ali Centre stopped charging people for admission. A tour company began
impromptu tours of Ali's path through the city. A downtown bridge announced it
would be lit the rest of the week in red and gold: red for Ali's gloves and
gold for his medal.
The day before his star-studded funeral,
members of Ali's Islamic faith will get their chance to say a traditional
goodbye. A Jenazah, a traditional Muslim funeral, will be held at Freedom Hall
at noon Thursday, Gunnell said. It will be open to all.
They chose the venue because it seats
18 000 and holds historical significance for the hometown hero. Ali fought, and
won, his first professional fight there in 1960.
Gianotti, the Islamic studies scholar, said
the Muslim funeral was "critically important for the global Muslim
community to say goodbye to their beloved champ."
The inner circle that helped the Alis with
funeral preparations included his attorney and a business associate, Gunnell
said. The group presented "The Book" - about 2 inches thick with funeral
details - to Ali in 2010, the family spokesperson said.
"Muhammad, over the course of about a
week, went through the entire plan and signed it and certified it and approved
it," Gunnell said.
Ali's burial will be in Cave Hill Cemetery,
the final resting place for many of the city's most prominent residents. The
luminaries include Colonel Harlan Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried
Chicken, whose granite memorial features a bust of the goateed entrepreneur.
Ali's gravesite will be far more subdued, in
contrast to his oversized personality and life. A modest marker, in accord with
Muslim tradition, is planned, said his attorney, Ron Tweel. He would not say
what words will be inscribed on the marker.