By New York Times
June 10, 2016
Lonnie Ali, the wife of Muhammad Ali, speaking at the memorial service. Credit Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Here is a transcript of the eulogies by Lonnie Ali, Billy Crystal, Bryant Gumbel and former President Bill Clinton during the funeral for Muhammad Ali on Friday:
Assalam u Alaikum, peace be upon you.
You know, I said something to Matt Lauer yesterday that I firmly believe Muhammad had something to do with all of this. And I think we are right. Thank you all for being here to share in this final farewell to Muhammad. On behalf of the Ali family, let me first recognize our principal celebrant Imam Zaid Shakir and also Dr. Timothy Gianotti. We thank you for your dedication to helping us fulfill Muhammad’s desire that the ceremonies of this past week reflect the traditions of his Islamic faith. And as a family, we thank the millions of people who through the miracle of social media, inspired by their love for Muhammad, have reached out to us with their prayers.
The messages have come in every language, from every corner of the globe. From wherever you are watching, know that we have been humbled by your heartfelt expressions of love. It is only fitting that we gather in a city to which Muhammad always returned after his great triumphs. A city that has grown as Muhammad has grown. Muhammad never stopped loving Louisville, and we know that Louisville loves Muhammad. We cannot forget a Louisville police officer, Joe Elsby Martin, who embraced a young 12-year-old boy in distress when his bicycle was stolen. Joe Martin handed young Cassius Clay the keys to a future in boxing he could scarcely have imagined.
America must never forget that when a cop and an inner-city kid talk to each other, then miracles can happen. Some years ago during his long struggle with Parkinson’s in a meeting that included his closest advisers, Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world. In effect, he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice. That he grew up in segregation, and that during his early life he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence. It was a time when a young black boy his age could be hung from a tree. Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, whose admitted killers went free. It was a time when Muhammad’s friends, men that he admired, like brother Malcolm, Dr. King, were gunned down, and Nelson Mandela imprisoned for what they believed in. For his part, Muhammad faced federal prosecution. He was stripped of his title and his license to box, and he was sentenced to prison. But he would not be intimidated so as to abandon his principles and his values.
Muhammad wants young people of every background to see his life as proof that adversity can make you stronger. It cannot rob you of the power to dream and to reach your dreams. This is why we built the Muhammad Ali Centre, and that is the essence of the Ali Centre message. Muhammad wants us to see the face of his religion, al-Islam, true Islam, as the face of love. It was his religion that caused him to turn away from war and violence. For his religion, he was prepared to sacrifice all that he had and all that he was to protect his soul and follow the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. So even in death, Muhammad has something to say. He is saying that his faith required that he take the more difficult road. It is far more difficult to sacrifice oneself in the name of peace than to take up arms in pursuit of violence. You know, all of his life Muhammad was fascinated by travel. He was childlike in his encounter with new surroundings and new people. He took his world championship fights to the ends of the earth, from the South Pacific, to Europe, to the Belgian Congo. And of course with Muhammad, he believed it was his duty to let everyone see him in person, because after all he was the greatest of all time. The boy from Grand Avenue in Louisville, Ky., grew in wisdom from his journeys. He discovered something new, that the world really wasn’t black and white at all. It was filled with many shades of rich colors or languages and religions. And as he moved with ease around the world, the rich and powerful were drawn to him. But he was drawn to the poor and the forgotten.
Muhammad fell in love with the masses, and they fell in love with him. In the diversity of men and their faiths, Muhammad saw the presence of God. He was captivated by the work of the Dalai Lama. By Mother Teresa and church workers who gave their lives to protect the poor. When his mother died, he arranged for multiple faiths to be represented at her funeral. And he wanted the same for himself. We are especially grateful for the presence of the diverse faith leaders here today, and I would like to ask them to stand once more and be recognized. You know, as I reflect on the life of my husband, it’s easy to see his most obvious talents. His majesty in the ring as he danced under those lights enshrined him as a champion for the ages. Less obvious was his extraordinary sense of timing. His knack for being in the right place at the right time seemed to be ordained by a higher power.
Even though surrounded by Jim Crow, he was born into a family with two parents that nurtured and encouraged him. He was placed on the path of his dreams by a white cop, and he had teachers who understood his dreams and wanted him to succeed. The Olympic gold medal came, and the world started to take notice. A group of successful businessmen in Louisville, called the Louisville Sponsoring Group, saw his potential and helped him build a runway to launch his career. His timing was impeccable as he burst into the national stage just as television was hungry for a star to change the face of sports. You know, if Muhammad didn’t like the rules, he rewrote them. His religion, his name, his beliefs were his to fashion no matter what the cost. The timing of his actions coincided with a broader shift in cultural attitudes across America. Particularly on college campuses.
When he challenged the U.S. government on the draft, his chance of success was slim to none. That the timing of his decision converged with a rising tide of discontent on the war. Public opinion shifted in his direction, followed by a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in a stunning reversal of fortunes, he was free to return to the ring. When he travelled to Central Africa to reclaim his title from George Foreman, none of the sportswriters thought he could win. In fact, most of them feared for his life. But in what the Africans call the “miracle at 4 a.m.,” he became a champion once more. And as the years pass, and those slowed by Parkinson’s, Muhammad was compelled by his faith to use his name and his notoriety to support the victims of poverty and strife. He served as a U.N. Messenger of Peace and travelled to places like war-torn Afghanistan.
He campaigned as an advocate for reducing the yoke of third-world debt. He stunned the world when he secured the release of 15 hostages from Iraq. As his voice grew softer, his message took on greater meaning. He came full circle with the people of his country when he lit a torch that seemed to create new light in the 1996 Olympics. Muhammad always knew instinctively the road he needed to travel. His friends know what I mean when I say he lived in the moment. He neither dwelled in the past, nor harboured anxiety about the future. Muhammad loved to laugh, and he loved to play practical jokes on just about everybody. He was sure-footed in his self-awareness, secure in faith and he did not fear death. Yet his timing is once again poignant. His passing and its meaning for our time should not be overlooked. As we face uncertainty in a world and divisions at home as to who we are as a people, Muhammad’s life provides youthful guidance. Muhammad was not one to give up on the power of understanding, the boundless possibilities of love and the strength of our diversity. He counted among his friends people of all political persuasions, saw truth in all faiths and the nobility of all races as witnessed here today.
Muhammad may have challenged his government, but he never ran from it or from America. He loved this country and he understood the hard choices that are born of freedom. I think he saw a nation’s soul, measured by the soul of its people. For his part, he saw the good soul in everyone. And if you were one of the lucky ones to have met him, you know what I meant. He awoke every morning thinking about his own salvation, and he would often say, “I just want to get to heaven, and I’ve got to do a lot of good deeds to get there.” And I think Muhammad’s hope is that his life provides some guidance on how we might achieve for all people what we aspire for ourselves and our families. Thank you.
The great Maya Angelou, who was herself no stranger to fame, wrote that ultimately people will forget what you said and people will forget what you did, but that no one will ever forget how you made them feel. As applied to Muhammad Ali, the march of time may one day diminish his boasts and his poetry, maybe even his butterflies and bees. It may even one day dull the memories of the Thrilla in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle. But I doubt any of us will ever forget how Muhammad Ali made us feel. And I’m not talking about how proud he made you feel with his exploits, or how special he made you feel when you were privileged enough to be in his company. I’m talking about how he gripped our hearts and our souls and our conscience, and made our fights his fights for decades.
People like me, who were once young, semi gifted and black will never forget what he freed within us. Some of us, like him, took pride in being black, bold and brash. And because we were so unapologetic, we were in the eyes of many way too uppity, we were way too arrogant. Yet we reveled in being like him. By stretching society’s boundaries as he did, he gave us levels of strength and courage we didn’t even know we had. But Ali’s impact was not limited to those of a certain race or of a certain religion or of a certain mind-set. The greatness of this man for the ages was that he was in fact a man for all ages. Has any man ever scripted a greater arc to his life? What does it say of a man, any man that he can go from being viewed as one of his country’s most polarizing figures to arguably its most beloved. And to do so without changing his nature, or for a second compromising his principles.
Yeah, you know, there were great causes; there were great national movements, there were huge divisions that afforded Ali unusual opportunities to symbolize our struggles. But Harry Truman had it right when he said, “Men make history and now the other way around.” Or as Lauryn Hill so nicely put it, “Consequence is no coincidence.” Befitting his stature as the GOAT, Muhammad Ali never shied away from a fight. He fought not just the biggest and baddest men of his day inside the ropes, but outside the ring he also went toe to toe with an array of critics, a seemingly endless succession of societal norms, the architects of a vile, immoral war, the U.S. government. He even fought, ultimately to his detriment, the limitations of Father Time.
Strictly speaking, fighting is what he did. But he broadened that definition by sharing his struggles with us and by viewing our struggles as his. And so it was that at various times he accepted and led battles on behalf of his race, in support of his generation, in defence of his religious beliefs and ultimately in spite of his disease. I happen to have been overseas working in Norway this past week, and my buddy Matt called, told me the champ had been taken to the hospital, and that this time it was really serious. Right away I called Lonnie, who was as always a pillar of strength. And as we discussed the medical details, the doctor’s views and the ugly realities of mortality, Lonnie said, ‘Bryant, the world still needs him.’ And indeed it does. The world needs a champion who always worked to bridge the economic and social divides that threaten a nation that he dearly loved. The world needs a champion that always symbolized the best of Islam to offset the hatred born of fear. And the world needs a champion who believed in fairness and inclusion for all.
“Hating people because of their colour is wrong,” Ali said. “And it doesn’t matter which colour does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.” Yeah, we do need Muhammad Ali now. We need the strength and the hope, the compassion, the conviction that he always demonstrated. But this time our beloved champion is down. And for once he will not get up. Not this time. Not ever again.
Let me close with a quick personal story. Fifty years ago, Muhammad Ali defeated George Chuvalo in Toronto, Canada. The very next day, he showed up in my Hyde Park neighbourhood on the South Side of Chicago. As Ali got out of a car in the driveway at the home of Elijah Muhammad, I happened to be next door shooting hoops in a friend’s backyard. I of course very quickly ran to the fence, and for the first time in my life, I shook the champ’s hand. I was 17, I was awe-struck and, man, I thought he was the greatest. Now half a century and a lifetime of experiences later, I am still awe-struck. And I’m convinced more than ever that Muhammad Ali is the greatest. To be standing here by virtue of his and Lonnie’s request, it’s mind-numbing.
The honour that Ali has done me today, as he goes to his grave, is one that I will take to mine. God bless you, champ.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, uh, we’re at the halfway point [crowd laughs]. I was clean-shaven when this started.
Dear Lonnie, family, friends, Mr. President [Clinton], members of the clergy, all of these amazing people here in Louisville. Today, this outpouring of love and respect proves that 35 years after he stopped fighting, he is still the champion of the world.
Last week, when we heard the news, time stopped. There was no war, there were no terrorists, no global catastrophes; the world stopped, took a deep breath and sighed.
Since then my mind has been racing through my relationship with this amazing man, which is now 42 years that I know him. Every moment I can think of is cherished. And while others can tell you of his accomplishments, he wanted me to speak and tell you of some personal moments that we had together.
I met him in 1974, I was just getting started as a stand-up comedian and struggling. But I had one good routine: it was a three-minute conversation between Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali where I would imitate both of them.
Ali had just defeated George Foreman and regained the heavyweight title. Sport Magazine made him the Man of the Year. Dick Schaap, a wonderful writer and a great man was the editor for Sport, and he hosted a televised dinner, honoring Muhammad Ali. So Dick called my agent looking for a comedian who did some sports material. As fate would have it, that comedian was not available and she wisely said — it’s destiny, man — and she wisely said: “But listen I got this young kid and he does this great imitation of Muhammad Ali and Cosell. He would be perfect for you.” I don’t know why, but Dick said: “O.K., I’ll try him. If he stinks I can cut him out of the show.” I couldn’t believe it. My first time on television and it would be with Ali.
I went to the Plaza Hotel; the event was jammed. I met Mr. Schaap, who would later become a part of my family. And he said: “Well, how should I introduce you? Nobody knows who you are.”
And I said, “Just say I’m one of Ali’s closest and dearest friends.” And my thought was I’ll get right to the microphone, go into my Howard Cosell and I’ll be fine. And then I nervously move into the jammed ballroom and that’s when I saw him for the first time in person. It’s very hard to describe how much he meant to me; you had to live in his time. It’s great to look at clips and it’s amazing to have them, but to live in his time, watching his fights, experiencing the genius of his talent, was absolutely extraordinary. Every one of his fights was an aura of a Super Bowl. He did things nobody would do.
He predicted the round he would knock somebody out in, and the he would do it! He was funny, he was beautiful, and the most perfect athlete you ever saw— and those were his own words.
But he was so much more than a fighter as time went on, with Bobby Kennedy gone, Martin Luther King gone, Malcolm X gone, who was there to relate to when Vietnam exploded in our face?
There were millions of young men my age eligible for the draft for a war we didn’t believe in, all of us huddled on the conveyor belt that was rapidly feeding the war machine. But it was Ali who stood up for us by standing up for himself.
And after he was stripped of the title, and the right to fight anywhere in the world, he gave speeches at colleges and on television that totally reached me. He seemed as comfortable talking to kings and queens as the lost and unrequited. He never lost his sense of humor even as he lost everything else. He was always himself: willing to give up everything for what he believed in. And he used amazing rhetoric about the life and plight of black people in our country that resonated strongly in my house.
I grew up in a house that was dedicated to civil rights. My father was a producer of jazz concerts in New York City, and it was one of the first to integrate bands in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Jazz musicians referred to my dad as the Branch Rickey of jazz.
My uncle and my family, Jewish people produced “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s classic song describing the lynching of African-Americans in this country. And so I felt him, and now there he was just a few feet from me. I couldn’t stop looking at him and he seemed to, like, glow, and he was like in slow motion, his amazing face smiling and laughing.
I was seated a few seats from him on the dais, and in the room were all the athletes in their individual sports, great ones: Gino Marchetti of the Baltimore Colts, Franco Harris of the Steelers, Archie Griffin who had won the Heisman from Ohio State, literary legends — Neil Simon, George Plimpton — all in a daze fawning over Ali, who then looked at me with an expression that seemed to say, “What is Joel Grey doing here?”
Mr. Schaap introduced me as one of Ali’s closest and dearest friends. Two people clapped: my wife and the agent. I rose, Ali still staring at me. I passed right behind him, got to the podium and went right into the Cosell: “Hello, everyone, Howard Cosell coming to you live from Zaire; some would pronounce it, ‘Zare.’ They’re wrong.” It got big laughs. And then I went into the Ali.
Impersonating Ali: “Everybody’s talking about George Foreman, George Foreman. George Foreman’s ugly, he’s so slow. George was slow, I catch ‘em voo! voo! voo! [swinging fists]. Then I rope-a-dope, I rope-a-dope George and I’m so fast, 33 years of age, but I’m so fast I could turn off the lights and be in my bed before the room gets dark.”
Still impersonating Ali: “However, I’m announcing tonight that I got new religious beliefs. From now on I want to be known as Izzy Yiskowitz. I am now an Orthodox Jew, Izzy Yiskowitz, “cha-im” [I am] the greatest of all time!”
The audience exploded. See, no one had ever done him before. And here I was a white kid from Long Island imitating the greatest of all time, and he was loving it.
When I was done, he gave me this big bear hug and whispered in my ear, “You’re my little brother,” which is what he always called me until the last time that I saw him.
We were always there for each other, and if he needed me for something, I was there. He came to anything I asked him to do. Most memorable: He was an honorary chairman for a dinner at a very important event where I was being honoured by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He did all of this promotion for it. He came to the dinner. He sat with my family the entire evening. He took photographs with everybody; the most famous Muslim man in the world honouring his Jewish friend.
Because he was there, we raised a great deal of money, and I was able to use it to endow the university in Jerusalem with something that I told him about. And it was something he loved the theory of and it thrives to this day. It’s called Peace through the Performing Arts. It’s a theatre group where Israeli, Arab and Palestinian actors, writers and directors all work together in peace, creating original works of art. And that doesn’t happen without him.
I had so many, so many funny unusual moments with him. I sat next to him at Howard Cosell’s funeral, a very sombre day to be sure. Closed casket was on the stage; Muhammad and I were sitting somewhere over there next to each other, and he quietly whispered to me, “Little brother, do you think he’s wearing his hairpiece?”
So I said, “Uh — I don’t think so.”
[As Ali] “Well then how will God recognize him?” So I said, “Champ, once he opens his mouth, God’ll know.” So he started laughing; it was a muffled laugh at first, but then we couldn’t contain ourselves. There we were at a funeral, me and Muhammad Ali, laughing like two little kids who heard something dirty in church, you know? We’re just laughing and laughing.
And then he looked at me and he whispered, “Howard was a good man.”
One time he asked me if I would like to run with him one morning, do road work. I said: “Well that would be amazing. Where do you run?”
As Ali: “Well, I run at this country club, and I run on the golf course early in the morning. It’s very private. Nobody bothers me. We’ll have a great time.”
I said: “Champ, I can’t run there. The club has a reputation for being restricted.”
As Ali: “What does restricted mean?”
“They don’t allow Jews there; they don’t have any Jewish members.”
He was incensed: “I’m a black Muslim and they let me run there. Little brother, I’m never gonna run there again.” And he didn’t.
My favourite memory perhaps was in 1979. He had just retired and there was a retirement party at The Forum, Los Angeles, for Muhammad and 20,000 of his closest friends in Los Angeles. I performed a piece that I had created, the imitation had grown into a live story called “15 Rounds.” I play him from the age of 18 until he’s 36, ready for the rematch with Leon Spinks. I posted it on the internet last week, footage that nobody had ever seen before of me portraying Ali doing his life for him all those years ago in 1979. There were 20,000 people there, but I was doing it only for him. It’s one of my favourite performances that I’ve ever done in my life; I sort of got lost in him. I didn’t even know where I was at the end of the performance.
And suddenly I’m backstage with another heavyweight champion, Richard Pryor. And Pryor is holding on to me, crying, and then I see Ali coming and he’s got a full head of steam and he’s looking only at me, and he nudged Mr. Pryor aside and he 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?
That, my friends, is my history with a man and I have laboured to come up with a way to describe the legend. He was a tremendous bolt of lightning created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty. We’ve seen still photographs of lightning bolts, ferocious in its strength, magnificent in its elegance. And at the moment of impact it lights up everything around it so you can see everything clearly. Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night, in the heart of its most threatening gathering storm. His power toppled the mighty foes and his intense light shined on America and we were able to see clearly: injustice, inequality, poverty, pride, self-realization, courage, laughter, love, joy and religious freedom for all. Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves, this brash young man who thrilled us, angered us, confused and challenged us, ultimately became a silent messenger of peace, who taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls.
My friends, only once in a thousand years or so do we get to hear a Mozart, or see a Picasso, read a Shakespeare. Ali was one of them, and yet at his heart, he was still a kid from Louisville who ran with the gods and walked with the crippled and smiled at the foolishness of it all. He is gone, but he will never die.
He was my big brother.
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 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 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 Centre and what it has come to represent to so many people. Here is what I would like to say: 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 humble Muhammad Ali with a boy and people visiting and driving by. I think he decided something 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, the expectations of others, positive negative or otherwise would strip from him the power to write his own story. He decided first to use these 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 he believed. For the longest time, in spite of all the wonderful things that have been said here, I remember thinking when I was a kid, “this guy is so smart,” and 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. And, 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 honour and love.
The only other thing I would like to say I think we all need to really really think about, is that the first part of his life was dominated by the triumph of his truly unique gifts. We should never forget them we should never stop looking at the movies, we should thank Will Smith for making his movie, we should all be thrilled it, was a thing of beauty. But the second part of his life was more important. Because he refused to be imprisoned by a disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandela was kept in prison in South Africa. That is, in the second half of his life, he perfected gifts that we all have, every single solitary one of us have gifts of mind and heart. It’s just that he found a way to release them in ways large and small.
Ask Lonnie, she will remember a time when they were still living in Michigan, and I gave a speech in southwest Michigan at an economic club there, it’s kind of a ritual when a President leaves office, you have to get re-acclimated: nobody plays a song when you walk in a room anymore, you don’t really know what you’re supposed to do. And this club, it’s called the economic club or something like that, they’re used to acting like you still deserve to be listened to and you need to get re-acclimated. So they came to dinner and they sat with me at this dinner and he knew, somehow he knew that I was a little off my feet that night. I was trying to imagine how to make this new life, and so he told me a really bad joke. And he told it so well and laughed so hard that I totally got over it and had a great time. He had that feel, about, you know there’s no textbook for that, knowing where somebody else is in their head, picking up the body language. Then, Lonnie, and Muhammad got me to come here when we had an occasion at the Muhammad Ali centre, and I was trying to be incredibly old, gray haired, elderly statesman, I gotta elevate this guy so I’m saying all this stuff in very high toned language and Muhammad comes up behind me and puts his fingers up behind my head.
Finally after all the years that we have been friends, my enduring image of him is like a little reel in three shots: the boxer I thrilled to as a boy, the man I watched take the last steps to light the Olympic Flame when I was president, and I’ll never forget it, I was sitting there in Atlanta, by then we knew each other, by then I felt that I had some sense of what he was living with, and I was still weeping like a baby, seeing his hands shake and his legs shake and knowing by God he was gonna make those last few steps, no matter what it took, the flame would be lit the fight would be won the spirit would be affirmed, I knew it would happen. And then this. The children whose lives he touched. The young people he inspired. It’s the most important thing of all.
So I ask you to remember that. We all have an Ali story. It’s the gift we all have that should be most honoured today, because he released them to the world, never wasting a day that the rest of us could see anyway, feeling sorry for himself because he had Parkinson’s. Knowing that more than three decades of his life would be circumscribed in ways that would be chilling to the naked eye, but, with a free spirit, it made his life bigger not smaller, because other people, all of us unlettered, unschooled, in the unleashing said well would you look at that look at that, may not be able to run across the ring anymore, may not be able to dodge everybody and exhaust everybody anymore, and he’s bigger than ever, because he is a free man of faith sharing the gifts we all have.
We should honour him by letting our gifts go among the world as he did. God bless you my friend, go in peace.