LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville and the rest of the world said goodbye to The Greatest on Friday, showering affection on Muhammad Ali during a fist-pumping funeral procession through the streets of his hometown, followed by a star-studded memorial service where he was eulogized as a wildly charismatic breaker of racial barriers.
"He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty," comedian Billy Crystal said in an address that had the crowd of about 15,000 laughing at nearly every turn.
The more than three-hour memorial capped nearly a full day of mourning in Louisville for Ali, the boxing great who died last week at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.
Earlier in the day, an estimated 100,000 people holding signs and chanting, "Ali! Ali!" lined the streets as a hearse carrying his cherry-red casket made its way past his childhood home to Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery, where a private burial service was held for the three-time heavyweight champion of the world.
"He stood up for himself and for us, even when it wasn't popular," said Ashia Powell, waiting at a railing for the funeral procession to pass by on an interstate highway below.
The public memorial at the KFC Yum! Center was packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Orrin Hatch, director Spike Lee, former NFL great Jim Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, soccer star David Beckham, Whoopi Goldberg and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Speaker after speaker paid tribute to Ali as a brash, self-confident and fearless man of principle, someone who went from being one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century to one of the most beloved.
"I can just hear Muhammad say now, 'Well, I thought I should be eulogized by at least one president,'" Clinton told the crowd.
Crystal cracked everyone up with his career-making impersonation of a boastful, fast-talking Ali — and his imitation of Ali's foil, sportscaster Howard Cosell — and rhapsodized about Ali's charisma, outspokenness and talent in a way that brought the crowd to its feet.
"We've seen still photographs of lightning at the moment of impact, 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," Crystal said. "Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America's darkest night."
He added: "Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves. This brash young man thrilled us, angered us, confused us, challenged us, ultimately became a silent messenger of peace and taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people and not walls."
Kevin Cosby, pastor of a Louisville church, told the crowd that Ali "dared to affirm the power and capacity of African-Americans" and infused them with a "sense of somebodiness." He likened Ali to such racial trailblazers as Jesse Owens, Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.
"Before James Brown said, 'I'm black and I'm proud,' Muhammad Ali said, 'I'm black and I'm pretty,'" Cosby said. "Blacks and pretty were an oxymoron."
Rabbi Michael Lerner, a political activist and editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun, brought the crowd to its feet four times with a fiery speech in which he referred to Ali's refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War — a stand that cost him his boxing title.