Muhammad Ali planned his celebrity-packed Louisville funeral events this week in a two-inch thick document he developed in secret with his inner circle of family and advisors during a years-long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Ali signed off on the plan in 2010, according to NBC News, although revisions continued until just days before the prize fighter and globally famous humanitarian died late Friday in a hospital in Phoenix, his primary home; he was 74.
In other words, the Thrilla in Manilla and the Rumble in the Jungle are about to meet the Burial ‘n Louisville before a television audience of untold millions, plus hundreds of thousands more attending in person across the city. The multi-day lineup may well rival “Operation Serenade,” the grand finale President Ronald Reagan’s aides orchestrated for his funeral 12 years ago. (Latest Ali funeral news, plus Twitter updates.)
Ali’s plans are virtually without precedent in recent Louisville history. They will demand the coordination of scores of businesses and government agencies. Although the final cost may never be known, it could run well into seven-figures. The events will be a publicity boon to companies from Yum Brands and KFC to A.D. Porter & Sons Funeral Home; storied Cave Hill Cemetery; a local public relations firm — and even street vendors selling souvenirs along the funeral procession route. Others are trying to cash in, too: One Craigslist advertiser in Nashville is offering a pair of boxing gloves purportedly signed by Ali himself for $20,000.
Some proposals were scrapped, including having his body lie in repose at the Muhammad Ali Center downtown, according to long-time family spokesman and Boxcar PR owner Bob Gunnell. Ali’s wife, Lonnie, worried it would interrupt the center’s operations. “Instead,” says NBC, “Ali added a slow procession through the streets of the city, past the museum built in his honor, along the boulevard named after him and through the neighborhood where he grew up and learned to box. That will happen Friday morning, before the funeral service itself at the KFC Yum Center.”
Royalty in the house
Ultimately, a good portion of the cost will be borne by taxpayers for what will be a huge turnout of Louisville police officers, plus the U.S. Secret Service, FBI and other law enforcement needed to guard the Porter & Sons Funeral Home; control crowds, and protect visiting dignitaries — including at least one sitting king.
Actor Will Smith, who played Ali in the 2001 film of the same name, will be a pallbearer. Former President Bill Clinton and the comedian Billy Crystal will deliver eulogies at the massive public memorial service at 2 p.m. Friday at the Yum Center.
King Abdullah II of Jordan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been scheduled to speak. But yesterday, they were bumped to make room for two other speakers whom Gunnell, the Ali family publicist, said would be identified later. President Obama could be one of them, along with First Lady Michelle Obama.
The Yum service is open to the public, but tickets — there will be 15,000 — are required; (how to get them). That’s already spurred out-of-towners as far away as Ottawa to offer $200 — and possibly even more — to anyone willing to stand in line to get one on their behalf when they become available tomorrow starting 10 a.m.
“Willing to pay any amount!!!” a man named Adam says in this Craigslist ad. “I am flying in from Canada to pay respects to my childhood hero, Muhammad Ali.”
At least one company was advertising for street vendors to hawk Ali flags, buttons, and other commemorative merchandise from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday along the Muhammad Ali Boulevard procession route and in front of the Yum Center.
“Seeking outgoing sales team,” the Craigslist poster said, before taking the ad down. “You will be selling Muhammad Ali flags and buttons, celebrating the life of Louisville’s hometown hero (and world hero)! Your pay: 20% commission; average earnings $200-$300.”
In Nashville, a Craigslist advertiser is selling what they claimed are a pair of boxing gloves signed by Ali at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where Ali himself lit the Olympic Cauldron. Asking price: $20,000. “This is a treasure find,” the ad says.
Porter & Sons Funeral Home on Bardstown Road is coordinating at least some of the services. The public ceremonies will be followed by a private burial in Cave Hill Cemetery in the Highlands, a much simpler event planned in accordance with Ali’s Islamic faith. He’ll be among other prominent figures from Louisville and Kentucky history in the historic burial ground, says The Courier-Journal. (More about Cave Hill.)
Here’s Will Smith in the Ali movie trailer: