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Thousands of people stood in the cavernous Freedom Hall arena in remembrance of one of the 20th century’s most singular personalities, who died last week at age 74. People in the crowd held up their cellphones to snap pictures as the coffin holding Ali’s remains moved by.
The brief ceremony in Louisville launched two days of interfaith tributes – bringing together VIPs and ordinary fans – to a man known for both his tenacity in the ring and his social activism outside of it, on behalf of African-Americans and social causes at home and around the world.
The three-time heavyweight world champion died after a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Born Cassius Clay at a time of racial segregation in the American south, the boxer converted to Islam in 1964, changing his name to Muhammad Ali and shocking America.
Thursday’s prayer service was held at the site of Ali’s last fight in his hometown, where he defeated Willi Besmanoff on Nov 29, 1961.
“The service is a traditional Muslim funeral,” Imam Zaid Shakir, who helped organise it, said earlier. Muhammad Ali has a very, very special significance for the Muslim community. This is about… sending him off in the very best of fashion, and honor his memory, live his legacy and love each other as he would wish.”
On Friday morning, a funeral procession will wind through the city of 600,000, passing sites that were important to Ali: his childhood home, the Ali Centre, the Centre for African American Heritage – which focuses on the lives of blacks in Kentucky – and, of course, along Muhammad Ali Boulevard before arriving at the cemetery for a private burial.
Actor Will Smith – who earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ali on the silver screen – and former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis will be among the pallbearers.
The Ali family asked news media not to film the burial from helicopters.
“Please use discretion and we will encourage you not to film the burial service from afar, from your helicopters flying over the cemetery,” family spokesman Bob Gunnell told a press conference on Thursday.
On Friday afternoon, Ali will be honoured at an interfaith memorial service at a large sports arena that will bring together heads of state, VIPs and fans alike. More than 15,000 people are expected to attend.