Thousands of people are expected to attend an Islamic prayer service for Muhammad Ali on Thursday, the start of two days of poignant ceremonies honoring the late boxing legend.
Ali’s hometown of Louisville in the southern US state of Kentucky will host the tributes that will bring together VIPs and huge crowds of ordinary fans in the city of 600,000.
Ali, a three-time heavyweight world champion whose remarkable boxing career and civil rights activism made him one of the indelible figures of the 20th century, died last week at age 74 after a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Born Cassius Clay at a time of racial segregation in the American south, the boxer converted to Islam in 1964, changing his name to Muhammad Ali.
The 30-minute prayer service will be held at Louisville’s Freedom Hall arena, the site of Ali’s last fight in his hometown, where he defeated Willi Besmanoff on November 29, 1961.
“The service is a traditional Muslim funeral,” said Imam Zaid Shakir, who helped organize it.
– ‘Live his legacy’ –
“Muhammad Ali has a very very special significance for the Muslim community,” he said.
“This is about… sending him off in the very best of fashion, and honor his memory, live his legacy and love each other as he would wish.”
For millions of Muslims around the world, Ali symbolized the true face of Islam, promoting peace and tolerance.
Thousands are expected to attend the service.
On Friday morning, a funeral procession will wind through Louisville, passing sites that were important to Ali: his childhood home, the Ali Center, the Center for African American Heritage — which focuses on the lives of blacks in Kentucky — and, of course, along Muhammad Ali Boulevard before arriving at the cemetery.
Actor Will Smith — who earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ali on the silver screen — and former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis will be among the pallbearers.
An anonymous individual has pledged to cover the path to the grave with red rose petals.
On Friday afternoon, Ali will be honored at an interfaith memorial service at a large sports arena that will bring together heads of state, VIPs and ordinary fans.
Former president Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal will eulogize Ali, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will attend.
“Muhammad Ali was not just a champion athlete or a boxing legend. He was also a freedom fighter who threw his punches for all the oppressed people in the world,” said Erdogan according to the state-run Anatolia news agency.
“Every punch Muhammad Ali threw, every word he said, every victory he won gave hope and strength to billions of oppressed people from Asia to Africa,” he said at Ankara airport late Wednesday before leaving for the United States.
The 15,000 free tickets to the memorial service were given out in half an hour and a black market for the coveted tickets soon sprouted online.
“Anyone selling or buying tickets online at Craigslist, eBay or any of the other sites that have those sales up will be reported to law enforcement,” Ali family spokesman Bob Gunnell said, calling the activity “despicable.”