Louisville: Muhammad Ali and his innermost circle started a document years ago that grew so thick they began calling it “The Book.”
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 honoring 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 Center in Louisville, Gunnell said. That tribute was dropped at the last minute because his wife, Lonnie, worried it would cause the center 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 honor, along the boulevard named after him and through the neighborhood where he grew up, raced bicycles and shadowboxed down the streets.
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 deserves.”
Former President Bill Clinton, a longtime friend, will deliver the eulogy at the funeral at the KFC Yum! Center, 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 simply admired.
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 books.
“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 honored and extremely humbled.”
He and the other faith leaders will be followed by Ali’s wife, daughter Maryum Ali, actor Billy Crystal and sportscaster Bryant Gumbel. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan had been scheduled to speak, but lost their speaking spots because two other speakers will be added later, Gunnell said.
“It’s not about who they are, it’s about the fact that we just don’t have room on the program for them,” Gunnell said, adding that their representatives were “gracious and understood” when informed.
Actor Will Smith, who portrayed Muhammad Ali in the movie “Ali,” and former world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis are among eight pallbearers for Ali’s memorial service this week in Louisville.
Also serving are Jerry Ellis, brother of Jimmy Ellis, who was Ali’s former sparring partner and former world heavyweight champion; and several of Ali’s relatives and a friend from Louisville.
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 staying there.
All over town, Louisville residents have been finding ways to pay tribute to their city’s favorite son. The Muhammad Ali Center 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 spokesman 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 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.