BOZICH | Louisville gave Muhammad Ali the loving farewell he deserved
Louisville showed its most famous person and the world its best Saturday as it said goodbye to former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I could have listened to Billy Crystal tell Muhammad Ali stories for hours.
“Thirty-five years after he stopped fighting, he’s still the champion of the world,” Crystal said.
Crystal was the winner by TKO as the most entertaining speaker during the nearly three-hour memorial service for Ali Friday, although Rev. Kevin Cosby, Rabbi Joe Rapport, Lonnie Ali and Natasha Mundkur scored major points with their left jabs.
But not all the stories came from the podium about what Muhammad Ali meant to Louisville -- and the world. Not all of them involved beating Joe Frazier or standing up against the Vietnam War.
I discovered that 20 yards from the KFC Yum! Center late Friday afternoon when I encountered John and Colleen Cash. Who are John and Colleen Cash? They’ve never hosted the Oscars or run for President.
John is 57. Colleen is 60. They live in, “Ireland, County Wexford,” John Cash said. He quickly flashed their passports to prove it.
As the Ali Memorial service concluded, the married Irish couple stood outside a parking lot on Third Street opposite the downtown arena. A string of limousines and police cars were parked in the middle of the street, pointed toward the Ohio River, waiting to drive Ali family members and celebrities to a reception.
Last Saturday morning after John and Colleen woke up and discovered that Ali had died, they started planning their trip to Louisville. They spent more than $2,000 to fly from Nottingham, England to London to New York City to Louisville. Hotels and meals, extra.
They visited Ali’s boyhood home on Grand Avenue. They toured the Ali Center. They encountered boxer Sugar Ray Leonard on Fourth Street.
But they could not attend the memorial service. They did not have tickets, and they adhered to the request from police not to deal with scalpers trying to profit from the free event.
So John and Colleen Cash watched the service on television downtown as Crystal, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Rev. Cosby, Lonnie Ali, two of the boxer’s children, John Ramsey, Bryant Gumbel, President Clinton and others eulogized Ali.
“He dared to love black people at a time when black people had a problem loving themselves,” Rev. Cosby said.
“He decided very young to write his own life story,” President Clinton said.
The Cashes saw all of that on TV. Then they stood on Third Street with several hundred other people, hoping for a look at family members and honored guests.
“Respect,” John Cash said. “That’s how much we respect Ali.”
I gave them an extra program I picked up in the media room. They reacted as if it was worth $2,000.
“God bless you,” Colleen Cash said. “Louisville is such a beautiful place. We’ve had fantastic time.”
There’s more. Yes, Mike Tyson, Whoopi Goldberg, Will Smith, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Common, David Beckham, Spike Lee and so many other athletes and celebrities were part of the scene.
So was Michael Hollins, Central High School, Class of 1971. That’s Ali’s school, one generation after The Greatest.
Hollins drove one of the limousines in the 19-mile motorcade that traveled from Porter Funeral Home on Bardstown Road to the Watterson Expressway to I-65 to I-64 to Ninth Street to Muhammad Ali Blvd. to 34th Street to Grand Avenue to Broadway to Cave Hill Cemetery, where Ali was buried Friday afternoon before the memorial service.
One of Ali’s twin daughters and her children rode in Hollins’ vehicle. Hollins said that when they saw the people lined along Bardstown Road on the trip to the Watterson they were dazzled by the numbers as well as the stopped vehicles.
“After we got on the Watterson, I think they thought it was over,” Hollins said. “I thought, ‘You haven’t seen nothing yet.’ “
Now see this: A jumbo-sized knot of admirers clustered around the ramp at the bottom of the Ninth Street ramp. Then they encountered a larger group as the procession made the right turn on to Muhammad Ali Blvd. Then an even larger collection of admirers when the limos slowed near Ali’s boyhood home on Grand, the street so filled with admirers that it narrowed to one lane.
“They were astonished,” Hollins said. “Blown away.”
I certainly was. Louisville showed Muhammad Ali, his family, John and Colleen Cash and the world its best self Friday. I thought the crowd would be large. It was larger. I thought the people would demonstrate their love and appreciation. They showed it over and over and over.
A crowd that the Louisville Metro Police Department said swelled to more than 100,000 celebrated Ali’s remarkable life with joy, reverence and love.
Balloons. Roses. Chants of “Ali, Ali, Ali.” Jumbo-boxing gloves. A blast of the Belle of Louisville’s steamboat whistle. Posters. T-shirts. Kids on bicycles riding along with the motorcade. Traffic at a respectful standstill on Bardstown Road, I-64 and Broadway.
A man dressed like Ali wearing a gray, hooded sweatshirt and wearing a mock championship belt shadow boxing as he did road work along the route. Black, white, brown, yellow. Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu. Old-timers who listened to his early fights on transistor radios. Kids who have heard the stories but likely never really understood.
They do now.
How could they not?
People lining up to confirm their respect everywhere you looked.
“People were joyful,” Higgins said. “They weren’t sad or disrespectful. Ali’s family was blown away. I think it was tremendous.”
I think it was Louisville showing Muhammad Ali – and the world – its best self. Just as he deserved.
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