Things you didn’t know about Muhammad Ali
The US President spent Friday celebrating his daughter’s high school graduation in Washington, but he sent senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to Louisville to read his moving speech.
“Muhammad Ali was America,” Jarrett said, “Muhammad Ali will always be America. What a man, what a spirit, what a joyous, mightiful champion.”
The parallel between a champion and his country were poignant. Obama’s speech made clear that Ali was complex and not always easy to define.
“The man we celebrate today is not just a boxer or a poet or an agitator or a man of peace,” Jarrett read. “He was not just a Muslim or a black man or a Louisville kid … He wasn’t even just the greatest of all time. He was Muhammad Ali.”
What did that mean? Obama said Ali was “brighter and more original and influential than just about anyone of his era.
“You couldn’t have made him up,” Jarrett read. “And yes, he was pretty too.
Among the speakers Ali selected for his funeral was Billy Crystal, who in the 1970s, performed a one-man comedy sketch framed as a boxing match, “15 Rounds,” that celebrated Ali’s triumph over racism.
Crystal, speaking at the service, said he got “lost in him,” like he never had playing any other character. Ali, after one performance, gave him the ultimate compliment: “Little brother, you made my life better than it was,” Crystal recalled.
“Ali taught us that life is best when you build bridges, not walls,” Crystal said, earning knowing laughter and applause for the sly dig at a presidential candidate who would keep Ali’s coreligionists from entering the United States.
He went on to express solidarity with Muslims, including by likening Israel’s government with terrorists, and to all but pitch subscriptions to the magazine he publishes, Tikkun.
“We know what it’s like to be demeaned,” Lerner said of American Jews, whom he said he was speaking for. “We know what it’s like to have a few people who act against the highest visions of our tradition, to then be identified as the value of the entire tradition. And one of the reasons that we at Tikkun magazine, a magazineo of liberal and progressive Jews, but also an interfaith magazine, have called upon the United States to stand up to the part of the Israeli government that is oppressing Palestinians, is that we as Jews understand that our commitment is to recognize that God has created everyone in God’s image and that everyone is equally precious, and that means the Palestinian people as well as all other people on the planet.”
“I remember thinking when I was a kid, This guy is so smart. For the longest time, in spite of all the wonderful things that have been said here, he never got credit for being as smart as he was.
“I don’t think he ever got the credit for being, until later, as wise as he was. In the end, 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. Being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life. Something like Parkinson’s could come along. But being free, he realized that life still was open to choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that have brought us all here today in honor and love.
Rabbi Michael Lerner
He delivered a powerful eulogy for the boxing legend, praising Ali for daring “to love black people at a time when black people had a hard time loving themselves” and calling for an end to Islamophobia.
“Muhammad Ali had the courage to say no to Farrakhan and leave the anti-Semitism and homophobia of that part of Islam, and eventually to draw sustenance from the Sufi approach to Islam — the ultimate in a love-oriented religion,” Lerner said, according to a transcript of the eulogy provided to Israeli news outlet Haaretz in advance of the funeral.
Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
Lerner said that what made Ali a hero was his courage to stand up to the “immoral” war in Vietnam by proclaiming himself a conscientious objector.
Lerner was an anti-war activist along with Ali, who refused to serve in the US army and was immediately stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967.
“Knowing he would lose his title, knowing he would face the racism of American society that would be heaped upon him for saying no to the crazy war in Vietnam,” Ali said no to the war, Lerner said. “He spoke truth to power—we must speak truth to power,” he added.
However, Twitter users were quick to react to Lerner’s speech, with some commenting that it was overly politicized, but the vast majority were positive, thanking Lerner for expressing solidarity with the Muslim community.
Louis Farrakhan: (Nation of Islam leader)
He is the leader of the religious group, the Nation of Islam, with which Ali became affiliated in the 1960s.
Farrakhan is remembering Muhammad Ali and his own history with the late heavyweight champion.
In a speech at the Chicago-based movement’s headquarters, Farrakhan detailed Ali’s courage in the ring and his courage in standing up for his beliefs by refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam War.
That decision led to Ali being stripped of his title and prevented him from fighting for more than three years.
Ali was a Nation of Islam follower before he embraced mainstream Islam.
Farrakhan says Ali went against the wishes of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammed by resuming his career after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor and he was allowed to fight again.
“If Muhammad Ali were here today, I’m sure his message would be this: Don’t waste your time on this planet fighting the small battles — put your life energies and money into fundamental systemic transformation,” said Lerner, who is also a political activist and editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun.
Shabazz is the ambassador-at-large for Belize and the daughter of the late human rights activist Malcolm X. Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X led to his conversion to Islam.
She offered her condolences to the family, calling them each by name and honoring them.
“Just know that when you are the decedent of, in the presence of someone whose life was filled with principle, that the seed is in you, so you have to cultivate that responsibly as well,” Shabazz said.
She spoke of how meaningful it was to her to be able to share the moment with Ali’s family and how meaningful Ali has been in her own life.
“While he and I had a treasured relationship, the genesis of this love was through the love of my father. Muhammad Ali was the last of a fraternity of amazing men bequeathed to me directly by my dad,” Shabazz said.
She went on to say that Ali had joined heaven’s “summit of fearless humanitarians.”
Legend paid tribute to Ali at Spike TV’s Guys Choice Awards, where the musician delivered a touching speech on Ali’s impact.
“Tonight as we celebrate so many greats, we must acknowledge the loss of the man known all around the world as The Greatest, Muhammad Ali,” he said.
“The Champ was the towering figure of our times, in the boxing ring and beyond. He was a freedom fighter who used his fists and his wits, his force and his faith to make our world a better and more just place.”
“As a fighter and a man, Ali had it all,” he continued. “As he himself would put it, he could float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. He was the toughest, the funniest, and the prettiest too. But beyond his amazing grace and beauty, The Champ was also the bravest, both in how he chose to fight and in how he chose peace. And that was true right until the end as The Champ bravely fought on in the final battle of his life.”
The former US president was one of several dignitaries and notable figures to honor Muhammad Ali at the public memorial service in Louisville on June 10.
“Thank you. I can just hear Muhammad say now, “Well, I thought I should be eulogized by at least one president, and by making you last of a long, long, long, long line, I guaranteed you a standing ovation.”
I am trying to think of what has been left unsaid. First, Lonnie, I thank you and the members of the family for telling me that he actually, as Brian said, picked us all to speak, and for giving me a chance to come here. I thank you for what you did to make the second half of his life greater than the first.
Thank you for the Muhammad Ali Center and what it has come to represent to so many people.
“I have spent a lot of time now, as I get older and older, trying to figure out what makes people tick. How do they turn out the way they are? How do some people refuse to become victims and rise from every defeat?
“We have all seen the beautiful pictures of the home Muhammad Ali lived in as a boy and people visiting and driving by. I think he decided something then I hope every young person here will decide.
“I think he decided very young to write his own life story. I think he decided, before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided he would not be ever be disempowered. He decided that not his race nor his place, nor the expectations of others, positive, negative or otherwise, would strip from him the power to write his own story.
“He decided first to use his stunning gifts: his strength and speed in the ring, his wit and way with words in managing the public, and his mind and heart, to figure out at a fairly young age, who he was, what he believed, and how to live with the consequences of acting on what he believed. A lot of people make it to steps one and two, and still just can’t quite manage living with the consequences of what they believe.”
Model Gigi Hadid was on hand to accept the Out New Girlfriend award and took time in her speech to pay tribute to Ali.
“Muhammad Ali has touched me so much in my life, I’m so grateful to have met him, so I wanted to openly say rest in peace Muhammad — you’re the champ,” says Hadid, fighting back tears.
Lonnie Ali, Ali’s widow
Lonnie Ali and Muhammad Ali knew each other for more than four decades. Their mothers, Marguerite Williams and Odessa Clay, were best friends, having lived on the same street in Louisville, where they raised their families. Lonnie is the fourth wife of the former heavyweight champ. They married in 1986.
She delivered a eulogy in which she thanked everyone for their tributes to Ali and for the support given to the family.
“America must never forget that when a cop and an inner city kid talk to each other, miracles can happen,” referring to how Ali’s talent was discovered.
She spoke of his power and influence. “Rich and powerful were drawn to him but he was drawn to the poor and the forgotten. He fell in love with masses and they fell in love with him.”
She praised his humanitarian work. “Muhammad was compelled by his faith to help the poor.”