The Champ's Final Round: Billy Crystal, Bill Clinton Give Powerful Eulogies As Muhammad Ali is Laid to Rest
Muhammad Ali never did anything quiet in his life, and after his death, his funeral was no different.
It was a star-studded affair and congregation of world leaders at Ali’s service inside the KFC Yum! Center arena in Louisville, Kentucky.
High profile names like President Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Beckham, Martin Luther King III, Billy Crystal, Bryant Gumbel, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Will Smith, Don King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, were among the mourners.
In addition, a bevy of boxing legends like Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Bernard Hopkins paid their respects to their fellow fighter and idol.
The stage, adorned with white flowers, rested under an American and Olympic flags — a fitting tribute to his gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Among those who delivered emotional eulogies was Billy Crystal, who made the crowd laugh and weep.
"Thirty-five years after he stopped fighting, this outpouring of love and support proves he is still the champion of the world," he said. "He seemed as comfortable talking to kings and queens as he was with the unrequited."
He concluded: "My friends, once in a thousand years do we get to hear a Mozart, see a Picasso and read a Shakespeare. Ali was one of them and he was a kid from Louisville."
An emotional Bill Clinton also spoke about his friend and hero.
"Being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life. Being free, he realized life was still open to choices. It is those choices that Muhammad Ali made that brought us all here today," the former president said. "We all have an Ali story."
Clinton discussed Ali’s enduring spirit at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as he struggled to light the Olympic flame.
He said: "Never released a day where he would feel sorry for himself that he had Parkinson’s… With the free spirit it made his life bigger not smaller.”
As the rousing speeches took place in remembrance of the boxer and civil rights leader, the crowd chanted “Ali! Ali!” Just as the crowd in the streets did earlier Friday morning, it was a sound that carried Ali in the ring and now brought him into the afterlife.
Tears were shed in the arena. Mike Tyson cried over the shoulder of former foe Lennox Lewis. Ali’s widow, Yolanda, who was escorted into the area by Bill Clinton, wiped away tears as leaders spoke about her husband.
Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama, read a letter from the president: “The world flocked to him because Muhammad Ali was America. He was our most basic freedoms, religion, speech, and spirt.”
The letter added: “Like America, he was always very much a work in progress. Ali was a radical in the most radical times. He was loud and proud. His jabs knocked some sense into us, pushing us to expand our imagination.”
Yolanda Ali spoke proudly of her husband’s life story. She began her eulogy discussing how it was a cop named Joe Martin who introduced young Cassius Clay to boxing.
“America must never forget that when a cop and an inner city kid talk to each other – miracles can happen,” she said.
As the room stood up and applauded, his widow strongly spoke about how her husband was guided by his religion to bring light to social causes around the globe.
“Muhammad may have challenged his government, but he never ran from it and he never ran from America,” she said.
Even as Parkinson’s claimed his body, his fight “took on new meaning.”
Before his death last week at age 74, Ali — a devout Muslim — had requested readings from the Koran in both Arabic and English.
Ali, born Cassius Clay in 1942, converted his name and religion in 1964 to Islam. His name was bestowed to him by Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
His interfaith funeral featured Rabbi Michael Lerner, Islamic scholar Timothy Gianotti, Native American Chief Oren Lyons and Catholic Monsignor Henry Kriegel. Buddhist monks were also on hand to perform a traditional chant.
The three-time World Heavyweight champion and civil rights activist passed away June 3 in an Arizona hospital from septic shock.
Since the mid-1980s, he has suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
Ali will be laid to rest at the Cave Hill Cemetery under a headstone that reads simply "Ali.”