Thousands paid tribute to Muhammad Ali on Friday during interfaith service that concluded with eulogies by his dear friends Billy Crystal, Bryant Gumbel, and President Bill Clinton.
The former president, who spoke last, began his tribute with a joke about the boxing legend’s plans for his own funeral.
“I can just hear Muhammad saying now, ‘Well I thought I should be eulogized by at least one president and by making you the last of a long long long long line I guaranteed you a standing ovation,’ ” he said with a laugh.
Clinton then thanked Ali’s wife of almost 30 years, Lonnie, for “making the second half of his life greater than the first.”
He then went on to share what he hopes will continue to be the great one’s legacy.
“I think he decided something that I hope every young person here will decide, I think he decided very young to write his own life story,” he said.
“I think he decided before he could have possibly worked it all out and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided he would never be disempowered, he decided not his grace nor his place nor the expectations of others would strip from him the power to write his own story,” he continued.
“He figured out from a very young age who he was and what he believed and how he could live through the consequences of acting in line with his beliefs,” he said. “Not many people make it to that last step.”
After recounting the ways that Ali dazzled the world with his strength and wit, Clinton went on to recall how the man showed even greater strength in the way he confronted his Parkinson’s disease.
“He refused to be imprisoned by his disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa,” Clinton said. “He perfected gifts that we all have — gifts of mind and heart — and he found a way to use them in ways that were large and small.”
“[His disease] made his life bigger, not smaller, he may not have been able to run across the ring anymore, he may not have been able to dodge and exhaust everybody, but he was bigger than ever because he was a free man of faith,” Clinton concluded. “And we should honor him by bringing our gifts to the world as he did.”
Clinton’s moving eulogy was preceded by a tribute from Bryant Gumbel, who was just 17 when he first met Ali in Chicago in 1966.
“I was awestruck then and man, I thought he was the greatest,” the sportscaster recalled of meeting Ali for the first time. “Now, a half a century and a lifetime of experiences later, I’m still awestruck and I’m still convinced more than ever that Muhammad Ali is the greatest.”
“Has any man ever scripted a greater arc to his life?” Gumbel asked. “He led battles on behalf of his race, in support of his generation, in defense of his generation and ultimately in spite of his disease.”
The veteran journalist said he was struck by the news that the legendary athlete had been rushed to the hospital because he feels so strongly that the world still needs him.
“The world needs a champion who always worked to bridge the economic and social divides that threatened a nation he truly loved,” Gumbel said. “We need the strength, the hope, the compassion and the conviction that he always brought but this time our champion is down and he won’t get up.”
After Gumbel reminded mourners of the importance of Ali’s legacy, Billy Crystal brought both comic relief and heartfelt emotion to his eulogy for his longtime friend.
The comedian met Ali, who affectionately called him “little brother,” in 1974.
“He was funny, he was beautiful, he was the most perfect athlete you ever saw and those were his own words!” Crystal told the crowd of mourners. “But he was so much more than a fighter.”
“My favorite memory was 1979, he had just retired and there was a retirement party,” says Crystal. “Ali whispered in my ear, with a big bear hug, ‘Little brother you made my life better than it was!’ But didn’t he make all of our lives a little bit better than they were?”
Crystal says his friend “forced us to take a look at ourselves.”
“He taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people not walls. Only once in a thousand years or so do we get to see a Mozart or hear a Picasso or read a Shakespeare. Ali was one of them, but at his heart he was still a kid from Louisville.”
“He is gone but he will never die he is my big brother.”