LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Muhammad Ali’s tombstone won’t exactly reflect the colorful and talkative champion.
It will read simply: “Ali.”
Family spokesman Bob Gunnell said Friday the simple stone in Cave Hill Cemetery will be in keeping with Islamic tradition. Ali chose the cemetery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, as his final resting place a decade ago.
Ali always said he wished to be buried in his hometown, where he learned to box and fought his first fight. He also built a museum here, and the city named a street in his honor.
In choosing Cave Hill, Ali toured the 300 acres to select a spot in a cemetery of twisting paths, towering trees and 130,000 graves that represent a who’s who of Kentucky, including Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders. Ali’s gravesite will surely become a tourist attraction.
The Greatest was to be buried there Friday following one final tour of his old Kentucky neighborhood.
The miles-long procession was expected to take his body past the boyhood home where he shadowboxed and dreamed of greatness to the boulevard that bears his name and the museum that stands as a tribute to his boxing triumphs and his humanitarian causes outside the ring.
The burial was to be followed in the afternoon by a grand memorial service attended by over 15,000 people, including hundreds of celebrities and dignitaries. Among the scheduled speakers: Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal and TV journalist Bryant Gumbel. The king of Jordan and president of Turkey were also expected to attend.
Louisville is accustomed to being in the limelight each May during the Kentucky Derby. But the send-off for the three-time heavyweight champion and global advocate for social justice loomed as one of the city’s most historic events.
“We’ve all been dreading the passing of the champ, but at the same time we knew ultimately it would come,” Mayor Greg Fischer said. “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.”
Ali died last Friday at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. A traditional Muslim funeral service was held Thursday afternoon, with admirers arriving from all over the world to pay their respects.
The mourners at Friday’s memorial were expected to include former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, a late addition as a pallbearer. Tyson caught a late flight to be part of the ceremonies and was added to the group of pallbearers that also includes actor Will Smith — who played Ali in the movies — and former champ Lennox Lewis.
Gunnell said that Tyson wasn’t sure if he would attend the service because of a prior commitment, and that the boxer was highly emotional when he learned of Ali’s death and wasn’t sure if he could handle the memorial.
Rumors that Donald Trump would attend were quashed Friday morning when Gunnell said Trump called Ali’s wife, Lonnie, to inform her that he was unable to make it.
President Barack Obama was unable to make the trip because his daughter Malia is graduating from high school. Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser, planned to read a letter Obama wrote to Ali’s family at the service.
Thousands were expected to line the procession route to bid a final goodbye to the city’s favorite son. The motorcade was to pause briefly at the Muhammad Ali Center in the heart of downtown, head onto Muhammad Ali Boulevard, pass the Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage, visit Ali’s childhood home on Grand Avenue, and then turn toward his final resting place. Officials predict a 90-minute tour.
People gathered early Friday outside Ali’s boyhood home, which was decorated with balloons, flags, flowers and posters. Fans took photos of themselves in front of the small pink house with white trim. Some people staked out their place near the home with lawn chairs.
The Ali Center stopped charging admission. A sightseeing company began tours of Ali’s path through the city. Businesses printed his quotes across their billboards. City buses flashed “Ali — The Greatest” in orange lights. A downtown bridge will be illuminated the rest of the week in red and gold: red for his boxing gloves, gold for his Olympic medal.
How can the storied life of a man revered by fans worldwide be encapsulated in a two-hour service? As it turns out, Ali called the shots.
Years ago, the champ signed off on how he wished to say goodbye. One of his mandates was that ordinary fans attend, not just VIPs. Thousands of free tickets were snatched up within an hour, many fans waiting hours for the chance to witness history.
“Everybody feels a sense of loss with Ali’s passing,” said Mustafa Abdush-Shakur, who traveled from Connecticut. “But there’s no need to be sad for him. We’re all going to make that trip.”