The long journey ends where it began. Muhammad Ali is coming down the backstretch and heading for home, to be laid to rest on Friday where the legend began his boxing career, in Louisville, Ky., more than a half-century ago. At his memorial service, he will be feted in death as he so often was in life. The rich and the powerful will gather to remember a man who impacted the world far beyond the ropes of the boxing ring.
They will come to honor a man who, quite literally, changed the world. Ali was a fierce advocate for human rights and civil rights. He campaigned tirelessly for peace and social justice.
This won’t be a day, however, simply for celebrities to see and be seen.
Ali himself decided that long ago. He was intimately involved in planning his own funeral, and certified his wishes in a manual that became known among his most intimate associates as “The Book.”
His wish was for his service to be all-inclusive. The most famous man on Earth always had time for the common man.
On his birthday in 2014, a plumber was working on a home across the street from where Ali lived. He worked up the courage to ring the doorbell, and found himself in the family living room taking a photograph with “The Greatest.”
That was so typical of Ali, who continued to box long after it was good for him. He didn’t necessarily do so for glory and money, though they certainly were likely factors.
As he grew older, he became increasingly aware of his stature in the world, and how it could be used for good. On Dec. 27, 1974, two months after his triumphant knockout of George Foreman in Africa, he appeared on a television show in England called “An Audience with Ali.”
Asked how much longer he planned to fight, Ali said he would no longer answer the question because he didn’t know. He pointed out that by continuing to fight, he could improve the lot of the oppressed and downtrodden around the world.
“There is so much I can do by continuing to fight,” he said. “We’re trying to build a hospital. … I want to do something to help humanity and through boxing, I can do a lot. I’m going to try to get one of these $10 million purses, donate it to something like the hospital and I don’t want one-quarter. I would rather give the $10 million to the hospital than even get $7 million for myself and give the government three. I’d rather all $10 million to go to the hospital.”
He toured Africa after knocking out Foreman in one of the most significant wins of his career. He met with leaders from many African nations who encouraged him to remain active.
They knew the impact he had on their people. And there are legions of photographs of Ali touring various countries, thousands of people following him simply to catch a glimpse of this iconic figure.
His meeting with these leaders led him to understand he could affect positive social change simply with his presence.
“I wanted to retire after [the Foreman fight], but I found out talking to the African presidents, I was at the Independence Revolution anniversary in Zaire,” he said. “I talked to about 20 African presidents, and a couple of them who are fighting for independence in the bush, in the jungles and stuff. And we talked and I’m so surprised to find that every one of those presidents, they knew me, they knew my history. They all want me to come to their country and all their people want me to come to their country.
“I found out through boxing, I can do so much to help so many people and our people in the States. For me to give up, to get out of the public and go somewhere and cut the grass and lay off at this time when the world is struggling and there is so much I can do, it would be terrible.”
His memorial service will recognize that commitment. His body will be driven through the streets of Louisville so the people can say goodbye. Mechanics and factory workers, cooks and clerks, the homeless and the housewives, people from all walks of life will crowd the sidewalks in the sweltering heat to wish the champion farewell.
He did not become so beloved because he could fight and famous people were attracted to him.
He was beloved because he was one of us, a regular guy who cared for others and wanted to leave the world a better place than he found it.
Not long after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 overturned his conviction for draft evasion by an 8-0 vote, Ali flew to Cleveland at the invitation of promoter Don King to box five men in exhibition bouts.
King had recently been released from the penitentiary after serving time on a manslaughter charge. Eager to rehabilitate his image, King learned of a hospital in Cleveland that served the black community that was going to close.
King asked for Ali’s help and Ali quickly obliged.
“He loved the people and he was always ready to help,” King said. “The people loved him because he never forgot them and never acted like he was better than they were.”
He came of age during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when blacks were still refused service in some restaurants when throughout the south there were separate bathrooms and water fountains and hotels for blacks and whites.
The typical approach for black athletes and entertainers of the day was silence, to smile and be polite but not to buck the system.
Ali was not that way. He condemned discrimination and racial inequality and the lack of justice whenever he saw it.
No one, or anything, was exempt.
On that same British television show in 1974, a reporter named Julie Welch during a discussion of possible fights in Estonia and China asked Ali, “Would you fight in a country in which you were politically opposed? Say one which had a very unattractive attitude toward the black man?”
Ali, now the most famous man in the world, rich beyond measure, hadn’t forgotten the struggle of those who weren’t as fortunate as he was to escape the discrimination and oppression.
“Like America?” he asked in response, a grim look on his face despite laughs from the audience. “Ain’t no place worse than America to black people.”
The long journey, the struggle for freedom, ends on Friday with an ode to his life on a day where the rich and famous are no different than the poor and the neglected. The privileged and the oppressed, the celebrities and the downtrodden, will all gather to remember a man who, in his 74 years, truly did shake up the world.
It will be a day just as he wished.