To be one of Muhammad Ali‘s nine children was to understand that your father did not belong to you or your family.
“He belonged to the world,” Hana Ali told CNN in her first interview after her father’s death. “And I’m OK with that.”
The world mourned Ali’s death on Friday night at age 74, the result of septic shock due to unspecified natural causes.
This week, grief gives way to celebration in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, where he began his ascension to boxing greatness as “The Louisville Lip.”
Ali spokesman Bob Gunnell will hold a news conference Monday morning to discuss details of the late boxer’s memorial service.
Tributes will include a vehicle procession during which Ali’s body will be driven through the streets of Louisville, the city where he grew up and began his amateur career at 12 years old. A public memorial is scheduled for Friday at 2 p.m. ET at the Yum Center, a 22,000-seat basketball arena. Information on tickets will be released later. The service will be streamed live on the website for the Muhammad Ali Center.
Former President Bill Clinton, longtime sportscaster Bryant Gumbel and comedian and close Ali friend Billy Crystal will be among those delivering eulogies, spokesman Bob Gunnell said.
The immediate family will have a private gathering Thursday and he will be interred at Cave Hill Cemetery.
“Muhammad Ali was truly the people’s champion and the celebration will reflect his devotion to people of all races, religions and backgrounds,” the family said in a statement.
“Muhammad’s extraordinary boxing career only encompassed half of his life. The other half was committed to sharing a message of peace and inclusion with the world. Following his wishes, his funeral will reflect those principles, and be a celebration open to everyone.”
It’s the way her father would have wanted it, Hana Ali said. He may have even foreseen it.
She recounted a recurring dream he would describe of him walking down the street in Louisville surrounded by chants and cheers. Then, all of a sudden, he takes off flying.
‘You can go back to God now’
The three-time heavyweight champion had been at HonorHealth Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, with what Gunnell initially described as a respiratory issue.
Hana Ali said her stepmother called the children and told them to get to the hospital as soon as possible. Because he had been in and out of the hospital on numerous occasions, the family was unsure how to take the news, Hana Ali said.
“I know it sounds crazy but I think we all just thought Daddy would defy the odds of even death,” she said. “He just seemed to always fight through everything.”
He spent his final hours surrounded by children and grandchildren, she said. They took turns holding his hands, hugging and kissing him, and whispering in his ear.
“It was beautiful,” she said, sobbing. “He was at peace.”
Tributes from around the world
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were among those who mourned Ali’s passing.
“But we’re also grateful to God for how fortunate we are to have known him, if just for a while; for how fortunate we all are that The Greatest chose to grace our time,” the Obamas said in a statement.
Don King, the boxing promoter who was every bit as brash as Ali, told CNN that in his mind Ali will never die.
“His spirit will go on forever,” he said. “He’s just a great human being, a champion of the people, the greatest of all time.”
Even as the former champ battled Parkinson’s disease for his final 32 years, he had the same love for life and people, King said. Parkinson’s, which primarily affects a patient’s movement, is a “progressive disorder of the nervous system,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Hours before her famed father passed away, Laila Ali, herself a former world champion boxer, posted a photo of Ali with her daughter, Sydney, who was born in 2011, and thanked the public for their support.
George Foreman, who Ali defeated in 1974 for the world heavyweight title, wrote on Twitter, “It’s been said it was rope a dope Ali beat me with. (N)o (it was) his beauty that beat me. Most beauty I’ve know(n). loved him.”
Famed promoter Bob Arum called Ali “a true great.”
Mike Tyson, the youngest heavyweight champion in history, said, “God came for his champion. So long great one.”
His hometown pauses to reflect
Ali was born in January 1942 as Cassius Clay. He began boxing as an amateur after his bicycle was stolen and a police officer offered to train him. Clay won a gold medal as a light heavyweight at the 1960 Olympics then turned pro, fighting his first bout in his hometown.
In 1964 he became heavyweight champion (the youngest ever at the time) with a surprising knockout of Sonny Liston. That year he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name.
Ali’s sparkling career was interrupted for 3½ years in the 1960s when he refused induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and was convicted of draft evasion. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
Ali was prepared to go to prison, King said. “He’d rather go to jail than break what he believed in.”
During his boxing hiatus, Ali spoke frequently about racism in America.
“At a time when blacks who spoke up about injustice were labeled uppity and often arrested under one pretext or another, Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right,” said NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who called Ali a friend and a mentor.
“In doing so, he made all Americans, black and white, stand taller. I may be 7’2″ but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.”
Ali went on to win the heavyweight title twice more before retiring for good in 1981 with a record of 56-5.
At a ceremony honoring Ali on Saturday, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the boxer “lived a life so big and bold, it’s hard to believe that any one man could do everything he did.”
Fischer added, “Muhammad Ali belongs to the world, but he only has one hometown. The ‘Louisville Lip’ spoke to everyone, but we heard him in a way no one else could — as our brother, our uncle, and our inspiration.”
People started lining up at 2 a.m. Saturday to see his childhood home, which opened as a museum in early May.
Memorials piled up on the front steps and guests paid their respects inside to Ali’s brother, Rahaman Ali.
In an interview with CNN, Rahaman Ali said he was very sad because “I won’t see my brother in the flesh anymore. It’s traumatic, I can’t see him anymore. Consolation is that I’ll see him in heaven.”
Rahaman Ali said his last words to his brother, in a phone conversation, were: “‘I will see you tomorrow, Champ. Take care of yourself.'”
Meanwhile, outside the center, some 15,000 bees swarmed a tree across the street next to a mural featuring Ali and his famous quote, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
A beekeeper who was called out to the site called it an “exceptional coincidence.”
“Swarms happen all the time in Louisville, and everywhere, in May and June when bees reproduce,” backyard beekeeper Kevin McKinney said. “This swarm just happened to land in a tree next to the Muhammad Ali Center and the mural that says ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.'”
However, Donald Lassere, the president and CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center, had a more cosmic interpretation.
“The Muhammad Ali Center has always experienced what we have come to know as, ‘Muhammad Magic,’ but I cannot even conceive as to the genesis of those bees,” Lassere said. “However, it’s possible his spirit is watching over the center, and he is wanting his fans to know that he is still ‘floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.'”
‘A beautiful contradiction’
While touching tributes to Ali were pouring in from world leaders, fellow athletes and regular folk, the boxing great had already addressed how he wanted the world to think about him after his death.
In his book “The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey,” Ali said he wanted to be remembered as “a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.”
He added, ” And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people, and I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
He just might get his wish.
“My father would be so happy right now, so blessed that people are honoring him the way they are,” she said.
He loved being the center of attention and the object of news reports, even if in recent years it was for being hospitalized, she said.
“He knew and loved his importance to the world,” she said, but he also asked his children if people still remembered him.
“He was his own biggest fan but he really was humble,” she said. “A beautiful contradiction.”