Mourners bid farewell to boxing icon Muhammad Ali
Two days of funeral ceremonies bidding farewell to Muhammad Ali got underway on Thursday with a Muslim prayer service in the Kentucky hometown of the beloved boxing legend and civil rights hero.
Thousands of people stood in the Freedom Hall arena in remembrance of one of the 20th century's most singular personalities, who died last week at age 74.
The brief ceremony in Louisville launched two days of interfaith tributes - bringing together VIPs and ordinary fans - to a man known for both his tenacity in the ring and his social activism outside of it, on behalf of African-Americans and social causes at home and around the world.
The three-time heavyweight world champion died after a decades-long battle with Parkinson's disease.
Born Cassius Clay at a time of racial segregation in the American south, the boxer converted to Islam in 1964, changing his name to Muhammad Ali and shocking America.
Thursday's prayer service was held at the site of Ali's last fight in his hometown, where he defeated Willi Besmanoff on November 29, 1961.
|See in pictures: Thousands of mourners bid farewell to Muhammad Ali|
"The service is a traditional Muslim funeral," said Imam Zaid Shakir, one of the organisers.
"Muhammad Ali has a very, very special significance for the Muslim community," he said.
"This is about... sending him off in the very best of fashion, and honor his memory, live his legacy and love each other as he would wish."
|For millions of Muslims around the world, Ali symbolised the true face of Islam, promoting peace and tolerance|
For millions of Muslims around the world, Ali symbolised the true face of Islam, promoting peace and tolerance.
On Friday morning, a funeral procession will wind through the city of 600,000, passing sites that were important to Ali: his childhood home, the Ali Center, the Center for African American Heritage - which focuses on the lives of blacks in Kentucky - and, of course, along Muhammad Ali Boulevard before arriving at the cemetery for a private burial.
Actor Will Smith - who earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ali on the silver screen - and former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis will be among the pallbearers.
On Friday afternoon, Ali will be honored at an interfaith memorial service at a large sports arena that will bring together heads of state, VIPs and fans alike. More than 15,000 people are expected to attend.
Former president Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal will eulogise Ali, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be in attendance.
"Muhammad Ali was not just a champion athlete or a boxing legend. He was also a freedom fighter who threw his punches for all the oppressed people in the world," said Erdogan, according to the state-run Anatolia news agency.
"Every punch Muhammad Ali threw, every word he said, every victory he won gave hope and strength to billions of oppressed people from Asia to Africa," he said at Ankara airport late Wednesday before leaving for the United States.
The free tickets to the memorial service were given out in half an hour and a black market for the coveted tickets soon sprouted online.