Early October 2017 saw the release of the book Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig. The publishers, Simon And Schuster, describe the book as:
The most comprehensive and definitive biography of Muhammad Ali that has ever been published, based on more than 500 interviews with those who knew him best, with many dramatic new discoveries about his life and career…a ground-breaking biography…a stunning portrait of one of the most significant personalities of the second half of the twentieth century…An epic tale of a fighter who became the world’s most famous pacifist…does full justice to an extraordinary man. – publishers Simon And Schuster describing the book Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig
The book certainly looks impressive and has definitely made it to my must-read-bucket-list. Seeing the book reminded me that I was hoping to do a blog post based on the memorial service of the great man himself. I know it is more than a year overdue, but here goes…
2016 was a year that saw the passing of of many celebrities and VIPs. In these 12 months the world lost Prince, George Michael, Dame Zaha Hadid, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Fidel Castro, and many more. Arguably the most famous loss was that of Muhammad Ali.
It has been well over a year now since the great Muhammad Ali passed away. Shortly after his passing I wrote a blog post as a tribute to the Greatest, followed by a blog post of quotes from his moving funeral service. Ever since I have wanted to do a blog post about his amazing and uplifting memorial service.
On June 10th 2016 the town of Louisville, in the American state of Kentucky, held a memorial service for one of its own. Muhammad Ali, the towns most famous resident, had passed away some 7 days earlier on June 3rd in Scottsdale, Arizona, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Now it was time for the world to come together at his memorial service, to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of the greatest sports personality the world will ever know.
His status as a 20th century icon is in no doubt, alongside the likes of Elvis, Sinatra, Brando, JFK, and Michael Jackson. After all, he was named the athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated. Just how prominent his stature was and still is could be seen by the luminaries attending his memorial service. Just some of those in attendance included:
Former President Bill Clinton, King Abdullah II of Jordan, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Reverend Jesse Jackson, comedian and actor Billy Crystal, actor Will Smith, actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, boxing promoter Don King, former NFL player Jim Brown, former NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muslim scholar Imam Zaid Shakir, comedian Dave Chappelle, actor Whoopi Goldberg, director Spike Lee, Muslim scholar Sherman Jackson, leader of the Nation of Islam Louis Farrakhan, rapper Common, singer and song writer Yusuf Islam, musician and actor Kris Kristofferson, and former boxing champions Sugar Ray Leonard, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, and Bernard Hopkins.
With such a vast array of celebrities in attendance, the award winning journalist and author Jim Dwyer made the following point:
Ali was eulogized in a grand sports arena by, among others, a priest and an imam, a rabbi and a monk, a former United States president and a famous comedian. Protégées and daughters and his wife remembered him. As they spoke, all stood beneath the flags of the United States and the Olympic Games, symbols of a man who saw himself as a citizen of America and of the world. – Jim Dwyer
The memorial services began in Louisville on June 9th 2016, during the holy Islamic month of Ramadhaan, with an Islamic Janazah prayer service at Freedom Hall on the grounds of the Kentucky Exposition Center. The following day included a public funeral procession that saw Ali’s body carried through downtown Louisville, along the same streets as the homecoming parade that celebrated his 1960 Olympic gold medal win, back when he returned home from the Rome Olympics to a city that greeted him as a hero but still remained divided on racial lines.
After this procession there was a public memorial service held for Ali at downtown Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center in the afternoon, with more than 15,000 in attendance. The day would end with the funeral procession arriving at Cave Hill Cemetery, where the boxing legend was interred during a private ceremony alongside Union and Confederate soldiers, and President Abraham Lincoln’s law partner, among others. His grave is marked with a simple granite marker that bears only his name.
Ali’s funeral had been pre-planned by himself and others for several years prior to his actual death. Ali and his innermost circle started a document years ago that grew so thick they began calling it “The Book.” 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 plan the services. The 74-year-old three-time heavyweight champion wanted the memorial service in an arena as he wanted multiple religions to have a voice. He also wanted ordinary fans to attend, not just VIPs.
Ali also wanted his memorial service to honour his Islamic faith, which is why the very first words spoken at his service were in Arabic and from the Qur’an. The American Muslim scholar Imam Zaid Shakir said, in translation, “In the name of God, most Compassionate, most Merciful.” The service ended some 3 hours later, again with Imam Zaid Shakir, saying “God bless, and blessings and peace upon Muhammad. Good evening.” One would assume he meant Muhammad Ali and not the Prophet Muhammad, or perhaps even both.
In between these first and last words the service saw many amazing heartfelt eulogies, eulogies that took place before the world was dragged kicking and screaming into the era of the heartless Trump presidency, eulogies that somehow seem to have more resonance today than they did when they were originally delivered.
Whilst the full 3 hour plus memorial service can be seen here, presented below are my favourite moments. With so many to choose from I have tried to pick those that I found funny or uplifting or insightful. So, in honour of the GOAT (Greatest Of All Times) who will always FLABSLAB (Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee) I really do hope you enjoy!
Reverend Doctor Kevin Cosby
Before James Brown said “I’m black and I’m proud” Muhammad Ali said “I’m black and I’m pretty.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner
The way to honour Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today.
Rabbi Joe Rapport
The living, breathing embodiment of the greatest that we could be.
Imam Zaid Shakir
I witnessed the power of sainthood.
Ambassador Attallah Shabazz (eldest daughter of Malcolm X)
When you believe in God, you should believe all people are part of one family.
President Obama (statement read by Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett)
Ali was a radical even in a radical’s time; a loud, proud, unabashedly black voice in a Jim Crow world.
Lonnie Ali (wife of Muhammad Ali)
Muhammad Ali wants us to see the face of his religion, al-Islam, true Islam, as the face of love…It was his religion that caused him to turn away from war and violence. For his religion he was prepared to sacrifice all that he had, and all that he was, to protect his soul, and follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
I am the disturbance in the sea of your complacency, and I will never stop shaking your waves.
To me, he is the finest example of a great human being that I have ever seen.
It’s very hard to describe how much he meant to me; you had to live in his time. It’s great to look at clips and it’s amazing that we have them, but to live in his time, watching his fights, experiencing the genius of his talent, was absolutely extraordinary…He never lost his sense of humour, even as he lost everything else.
What does it say of a man, any man, that he can go from being viewed as one of his countries most polarising figures to arguably its most beloved? And to do so without changing his nature or for a second compromising his principles?
I think he decided very young to write his own life story. I think he decided, before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided that he would not be ever disempowered.
Imam Zaid Shakir
If reindeer could box, he would have fought Donner and Blitzen.
If presidents could fight, he would have fought Richard Nixon.