Columnist Tim Sullivan says, In Death, Muhammad Ali Was Still Larger Than Life


The procession floated like a butterfly with a broken wing.

It was late in leaving and so slow en route that flowers flung from the street landed softly and clung to the hood and the windshield of the hearse bearing Muhammad Ali’s body.

It was a bouquet arranged at random by dozens of strangers across almost 20 miles, a shared sentiment manifested mainly with roses.

Possibly as many as 100,000 people lined Louisville’s streets Friday to witness the city’s most famous son’s journey to Cave Hill Cemetery. Probably, we’ll never see a sendoff on this scale again.

Yet on the seventh day since Ali’s death, even before Ali’s remains had been interred, many of his friends and fans appeared ready to move on from their mourning. They watched his funeral cortege with a mixture of solemnity and spirit, as if the joy Ali customarily evoked had been too long suppressed.

Some of them ran alongside the procession for blocks, as if to prolong their inevitable parting with the champ. Others reached out to touch the moving hearse or held up signs and photographs attesting to Ali’s brilliance in the boxing ring. The waiting was long enough for lawn chairs, a bonanza for T-shirt vendors and, as the line of black limousines drew nearer, spectators would stand in the middle of shut-down streets to gauge the distance by the proximity of hovering helicopters.

“Ali bomaye,” spectators chanted in unison as the hearse crossed 6th Street on its eastbound leg along Broadway, invoking the phrase that had echoed after the champ more than four decades earlier in Zaire, as he prepared to let George Foreman punch himself out with his daring “rope-a-dope” strategy.

“Ali bomaye,” is Lingala for “Ali kill him,” and it is a measure of the man that Ali’s capacity for violence was largely confined to three-minute rounds of such balletic brilliance that they were often compared to dance recitals.

As he was consistently remembered at a memorial service Friday at the KFC Yum! Center. Muhammad Ali was essentially a force for inclusiveness, unity and peace, one who also owned a lethal left jab. He was a figure of such epic proportions that his services drew a King (of Jordan) as well as commoners, by President Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal, and by a spectrum-spanning collection of clergy.

There was prayer at the memorial service, but also passion; sweet-natured anecdotes and sharp political fulmination. The service was as mixed a bag as was Ali himself, a condensed version of his remarkably robust, complicated and sometimes contradictory life.

“Has any man ever scripted a greater arc to his life?” sports journalist Bryant Gumbel asked. “What does it say of a man that he can go from being viewed as one of a country’s most polarizing individuals to, arguably, its most beloved?”

Such a color-blind outpouring of affection as occurred Friday would have been unthinkable in the segregated Louisville of Ali’s youth or later, as he spoke out for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. But as public opinion caught up with Ali’s convictions, and his rhetorical overreach was curbed by a three-decade battle with Parkinson’s disease, a fuller and more flattering portrait emerged. Whether or not you agreed with Ali’s refusal to join the Army, it is difficult to dispute the principled stance of a man whose politics cost him a lucrative livelihood at the peak of his athletic prowess.

If every man has his price, the bidding never went high enough to pique Ali’s interest. He was, emphatically, his own man.

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Source: USA Today | Tim Sullivan