LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Muhammad Ali and his innermost circle started a document years ago that grew so thick they began calling it “The Book.”
Its contents will soon be revealed.
In the pages, the boxing great planned in exacting detail how he wished to say goodbye.
“The message that we’ll be sending out is not our message — this was really designed by the champ himself,” said Dr. Timothy Gionazi, as Islamic studies scholar who helped for years to plan the services. “The love and the reverence and the inclusivity that we’re going to experience over the coming days is really a reflection of his message to the people of planet earth.”
The 74-year-old three-time heavyweight champion wanted the memorial service in an arena. He wanted multiple religions to have a voice while honoring the traditions of his Muslim faith. And he wanted ordinary fans to attend, not just VIPs.
He was never downcast when talking about his death, said Bob Gunnell, an Ali family spokesman. He recalled Ali’s own words during meetings planning the funeral: “It’s OK. We’re here to do the job the way I want it. It’s fine.”
The final revisions were made days before Ali died Friday at an Arizona hospital, his family by his side.
For years, the plan was to have Ali’s body lie in repose at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Gunnell said. That tribute was dropped at the last minute because his wife, Lonnie, worried it would cause the center to be shut down, and knew people would want to gather there in grief.
In its place, a miles-long procession was added that will carry Ali’s body across his beloved hometown. It will drive past the museum built in his honor, along the boulevard named after him and through the neighborhood where he grew up, raced bicycles and shadowboxed through the street.
In a city accustomed to capturing the world’s attention for just two minutes during the Kentucky Derby each year, Ali’s memorial service Friday looms as the most historic event in Louisville’s history. Former presidents, heads of nations from around the globe, movie stars and sports greats will descend upon Louisville to pay final respects to The Louisville Lip.
“It’s been a really bittersweet time for our city,” Mayor Greg Fischer said. “We’ve all been dreading the passing of the Champ, but at the same time we knew ultimately it would come. It was selfish for us to think that we could hold on to him forever. Our job now, as a city, is to send him off with the class and dignity and respect that he deserves.”
Former President Bill Clinton, a longtime friend, will deliver the eulogy at the funeral at the KFC Yum! Center, where the 15,000 seats are likely to be filled.
Others speakers will include representatives of multiple faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Mormonism and Catholicism. They will be followed by Ali’s wife, daughter Maryum Ali, actor Billy Crystal, sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The day before his star-studded funeral, members of Ali’s Islamic faith will get their chance to say a traditional goodbye to Ali. A Jenazah, a traditional Muslim funeral service, will be held at Freedom Hall in Louisville at noon Thursday, Gunnell said. It will be open to all.
They chose the venue because it seats 18,000 and holds historical significance for the hometown hero. Ali fought, and won, his first professional fight there in 1960.
Gianotti said Monday the Muslim funeral service was “critically important for the global Muslim community to say goodbye to their beloved champ.”
The inner circle that helped the Ali family with funeral preparations included his attorney and a business associate, Gunnell said. The group presented “The Book” — about 2 inches thick with funeral details — to Ali in 2010, he said.
“Muhammad, over the course of about a week, went through the entire plan and signed it and certified it and approved it,” Gunnell said.
Ali’s burial will be in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, the final resting place for many of the city’s most prominent citizens of the 19th and 20th centuries. The luminaries include Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sanders’ granite memorial features a bust of the goateed entrepreneur.
Ali’s grave site will be far more subdued, in contrast to his oversized personality and life. A modest marker, in accord with Muslim tradition, is planned, his attorney, Ron Tweel, said Monday. He would not say what words will be inscribed on the marker.