The funeral of Muhammad Ali is set to be one of the biggest television events in history with a worldwide audience of billions expected to witness his last farewell.
World leaders including President Barack Obama and ex-President Bill Clinton as well as top names from the world of entertainment and sport are expected to join mourners as Ali will make his final journey through Louisville to his funeral on Friday.
The June 10 ceremony at 2pm local time (7pm BST) will be preceded by a procession through the city, starting five hours earlier, which is expected to draw vast crowds of mourners.
An interfaith service open to the public will be held where President Clinton, Hollywood veteran Billy Crystal and TV journalist Bryant Gumbel will give eulogies.
The service will be led by an imam and will include clerics from multiple religions.
Ali boastfully called himself ‘The Greatest’ but brilliantly lived up to that billing, and on Saturday his one-time great rival George Foreman spoke of the “emptiness” he felt since learning the three-time world champion had died.
Foreman described the sense of “losing a piece” of himself while reflecting on the life of his long-term friend.
A spokesman for Ali’s family announced his death, which occurred in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday evening local time.
Ali during his emotional lighting of the Olympic Flame in 1996
He had been admitted to hospital earlier in the week with a respiratory condition having suffered with Parkinson’s disease for 32 years. The family said in a statement that Ali died from complications related to his condition.
Foreman was the undefeated WBC and WBA heavyweight champion when in 1974 he fought Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle.
He was the heavy favourite and had been expected to retire his challenger there in Zaire, when Ali secured perhaps the finest victory of his decorated career by masterfully stopping him in eight rounds.
Foreman had succeeded Ali as the world heavyweight champion and as an Olympic gold medallist with victory at the 1968 Games in Mexico City.
Speaking to Press Association Sport, Foreman revealed how much of an influence Ali had on his life.
“It’s so many years now since right before the Olympics, and during the Olympics, I did an interview, and I recited poems, and I thought ‘Maybe Muhammad Ali will look at this, maybe he will hear this and see this’,” the 67-year-old said.
“Even when I fought in the Olympics: (I thought) the same.
“For all those years, since 1967, I’ve had my eye pointed to where he may be. I woke up this morning and it wasn’t there, so there’s a great emptiness in my life.”
Ali’s death leaves Foreman as the sole significant survivor of the golden age of the heavyweights in which Joe Frazier, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton and Jimmy Ellis were also prominent.
Preparing to face Al Lewis on his way back to the top in 1972
“Each time one of us leaves, I tell everybody: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, we were really just one guy,” Foreman said. “And every time one slips away, you feel like you’ve lost a piece, and Muhammad Ali was the greatest piece of all.
“I spoke with Muhammad, especially during the days when he was really speaking, and he had some terrible days, but he never told me, ‘George, I’m suffering’. He made every day of his life worth living, and every time you’d meet him, you felt good about meeting him.
“Certainly there were some things that weren’t perfect with his body, and his speech, but there was something magnificent about his presence, every time that I ever saw him. Muhammad Ali, I didn’t want him to leave.
“The greatest honour, when I look back: everybody says ‘I knew Muhammad, and I know this’, but those eight rounds we spent together in Africa (were) probably as close as anyone who’s alive has been with him, and I’ll never forget that.
“He was a lovely friend. His children and my children were friends, and I know his wife, would call him up on the phone. It got to the point when children would put me on FaceTime with him. A new invention for Muhammad Ali and me: oh, I loved the guy.
“When I came back into boxing (in 1987) he’d retired, and I realised how many years I’d missed his friendship, I could have been closer to him. And from that point on I stayed close to him.
“Muhammad Ali, of course, gave me the worst (defeat), because there I was in Africa, being counted out. That was a wonderful time for heavyweight boxing and I’d like to see those days come again.
“I’m just reflecting, today.”
Ali sends Foreman to the canvas
Even in the build-up to the Rumble in the Jungle, when Foreman was the champion, he had recently convincingly defeated Frazier and Norton and was at his most feared, Ali remained that fight’s biggest attraction.
Foreman revealed that was far from the first time he had experienced Ali’s aura, and recalled a time he first truly witnessed it for himself.
“I’d taken this girl out for dinner,” Foreman said. “I’d just won an Olympic gold medal and I was a handsome young man, and as I sat with her – she didn’t know what I did – I told her I was a boxer.
“She said: ‘Really? I met Muhammad Ali, he was on the street saying how pretty and how beautiful he was. He just had on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. And you know what? He was beautiful’.
“I thought, ‘Hmm, I don’t like her anymore’. A couple of years later, I’m fighting in (New York’s) Madison Square Garden, and there’s a crowd coming down the street.
“I don’t know what it is, I’m just walking along so I stopped to peep, look in the crowd, and this young man had on a sweater and jeans. It was Muhammad Ali. And you know what? Just like that girl said, he was beautiful.
“She wasn’t trying to put me down but that was the only description you could give him. I never saw her again, but I wish I had so I could have told her.”
Gene Kilroy, Ali’s business manager and the only surviving member of the inner circle that once included his trainer Angelo Dundee, cornerman Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown and assistant Walter Youngblood, later known as Wali Muhammad, earlier told Press Association Sport of his sadness at his great friend’s death.
Tributes, as expected, have been widespread, coming from some of Britain’s finest fighters in David Haye, Anthony Joshua, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton. US president Barack Obama also spoke of how “Ali shook up the world, and the world is better for it”.
World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in his prime
Among the most widely-recalled memories of his life surround the night when, struggling with Parkinson’s, he lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
He also contributed to the opening ceremony at London 2012: by then his condition was considerably worse.
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