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Those in town to honor Muhammad Ali: He was, is the greatest

The casket with the body of Muhammad Ali

The casket with the body of Muhammad Ali arrives for an Islamic prayer service at the Kentucky Exposition Center on June 9, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. The service, called a Jenazah, was to be held for the four-time world heavyweight boxing champion, who died on June 3 at age 74, A procession and memorial service are scheduled for Friday. Photo Credit: Getty Images / John Moore

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — World leaders, religious figures, sports stars and other celebrities have descended upon this medium-sized burg, here to celebrate the life and times of Muhammad Ali.

But for all the words they have spoken and will speak at Friday’s memorial for the late boxer, none were more eloquent about his 74-year journey than the one in lights on city buses rolling up and down Market Street:

“ALI – THE GREATEST!”

Given that young Cassius Clay grew up in a segregated Louisville, and given the symbolism buses have for that era in the American South, Ali and those he grew up with surely would have enjoyed that sight.

It’s not that Muhammad Ali was among the most important figures of the civil rights era, or that it would not have happened without him. But as illustrations of it go, he comes in pretty handy.

His personal history is complicated. People old enough to recall the culture wars of the 1960s know he was not always the beloved figure he later became.

But legacy often is simpler, a distillation of someone’s essence. And so it has come to pass for Ali.

He is and likely always will be recalled as a proud, principled black man who changed his religion and name, risked his career on a divisive political stand and later became a global ambassador for goodwill — even as his body betrayed him.

“That’s the gift, to take on the task Ali took on,” former boxer Bernard Hopkins said after Thursday’s Islamic Jenazah service at the Kentucky Expo Center. “You can do the same. I can do the same.

“All you have to be is a positive influence on the people that you touch. First it starts at your family and outside of your family come extra blessings, which is the community, which is your second family. That is the legacy Ali left.”

Hopkins marveled at Ali’s willingness to “say things at a time that no one else is saying them. [It is like] Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus. Now we can ride in the front of the bus.”

The Jenazah service was supposed to be solemn and prayerful, but the imam struggled at times to keep everyone quiet and focused.

That can be difficult when iPhone-wielding journalists and others are trailing the likes of Jesse Jackson, Don King, Louis Farrakhan and the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens.

Yet the somewhat chaotic scene was vintage Ali, like something out of one of his 1970s boxing road shows.

Before the service, Jerry Martin of Martinsville, Virginia, was walking around the parking lot with his horse, Rekoa. Why? He said it was a riderless horse, which “represents a person who has fallen, to show respect and tribute.”

Inside, Muhammad Ali, 68, of Bangladesh showed pictures of his namesake’s 1978 visit to his home. He said he postponed heart surgery to travel to Louisville, fearing he would die on the operating table and miss the funeral.

Ali the boxer encouraged him to establish a hospital in Bangladesh for victims of rape and acid attacks. So he did. “He had so much of humanity’s feeling in his heart,” Ali said.

Atta Amin showed a video of him visiting Ali last year. Amin was inspired by Ali to build a stadium in his native land “to change the negative energy to positive energy for the children of Afghanistan.”

“You can see how wise he was to reach out throughout the world to build this history,” Amin said. “It’s very important to not look for geography, but to look for history.”

Yusuf Islam, formerly Stevens, said, “He was like a brother to us all . . . He was a like a model, and he made things possible where they were impossible before.”

So it went all around town. At Ali’s childhood home, the former boxer Randall (Tex) Cobb said, “I feel lucky to have a chance to honor Muhammad Ali, a guy who made a bigger impact outside the ring than he made inside the ring.”

Outside the Muhammad Ali Center, former Kentucky governor John Y. Brown said, “It’s a love-in. It’s a world love-in. He changed the world in many ways.” Inside, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan was getting a tour.

Nothing captured the vibe quite like when King paraded through the Expo Center, waving flags and yelling, “Ali will never die!”

It was impossible not to recall King’s most famous line: Only in America.

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