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LOUISVILLE (AFP) – Thousands of people from the worlds of sports, entertainment, politics and Muhammad Ali’s native Louisville on Friday said farewell to the boxing legend hailed by Bill Clinton as a ‘‘universal soldier for our common humanity.’’
A poignant memorial service, which began with a Koranic chant, capped two days of tributes honoring the three-time heavyweight world champion known as ‘‘The Greatest,’’ who died last week at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Early Friday, thousands lined the streets of Louisville – the largest city in the southern state of Kentucky where Ali was born and launched his career – to catch a glimpse of the hearse carrying Ali’s remains, before a private family burial.
Then former president Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal, Ali’s wife Lonnie and others addressed mourners gathered at a Louisville arena – remembrances that lauded his athletic gifts, his passionate civil rights activism and his quick wit.
‘‘We all have an Ali story. It’s the gift we all have that should be most honored today because he released them to the world,’’ Clinton said.
‘‘Besides being a lot of fun to be around and basically a universal soldier for our common humanity, I will always think of Muhammad as a truly free man of faith.’’
Crystal, who brought some levity to the proceedings with comic impressions and a few well-received jokes, called Ali ‘‘a tremendous bolt of lightning created by Mother Nature, the fantastic combination of power and beauty.’’
Mourners chanted Ali’s name as his wife Lonnie took the stage, her face obscured by her wide-brimmed black hat.
She reminded the crowd: ‘‘If Muhammad did not like the rules, he would rewrite them. His religion, his name, his beliefs, were his to fashion, no matter what the cost.’’
Born Cassius Clay in 1942, Ali won Olympic gold and went on to a glorious professional career, with his epic fights – like the ‘‘Rumble in the Jungle’’ with George Foreman and the ‘‘Thrilla in Manila’’ with Joe Frazier – now the stuff of sports legend.
He shocked America by refusing to serve in Vietnam, a decision that cost him his title and his career for years. He earned scorn for his incendiary comments about his opponents, once calling Frazier a ‘‘gorilla.’’