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Louisville weeps, honors, remembers

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Muhammad Ali's younger brother wept, swayed to hymns and hugged anyone he could reach. He raised his hands to the sky, eyes closed, surrounded by congregants at the church where their father once worshipped.

Rahaman Ali took center stage at the two-hour, high-energy service at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church, sitting in a front-row pew with his wife, Caroline. The church is not far from the little pink house in Louisville's west end where the Ali brothers grew up.

It was one of several emotional remembrances Sunday as the city joined together to mourn its most celebrated son, the Louisville Lip. Later this week, politicians, celebrities and fans from around the globe are expected for a Friday memorial service that Ali planned himself with the intent of making it open to all.

Ali's body was returned to his grieving hometown for the final time. An airplane carrying the boxing great's body landed Sunday afternoon.

At his father's church, the congregation stood in tribute, prayed for the former three-time heavyweight champ and his family and even dug into their pockets, filling a collection plate for Rahaman and his wife as a show of support.

"There is no greater man that has done more for this city than Muhammad Ali," said the church's assistant pastor, Charles Elliott III, drawing a round of "Amens" and prolonged applause from the congregation.

Elliott recalled the light side of the former boxing champion and global humanitarian, who died Friday at an Arizona hospital.

Elliott said his grandmother was once a nanny to Ali's family. He visited as a wide-eyed young boy, he said, and recalled the house had an elevator and a parrot who called out: "Here comes the champ, here comes the champ."

His father, the Rev. Charles Elliott Jr., knew Ali for decades and remembered his generosity. He recalled when he was raising money in the 1960s to keep a program running to feed the city's hungry, and Ali cut him a check. At the time, the program offered food twice a week, he said.

"He came in and he said, 'Reverend, let's feed 'em every day. I'll give you a check,' " the elder Elliott said.

Ali's father, Cassius Clay Sr., a painter, was a member of King Solomon before his death decades ago. He painted a mural of Jesus' baptism that still hangs behind the pulpit.

Muhammad Ali sometimes accompanied his father to the church, even after the boxer had announced his conversion to Islam.

Elsewhere in Ali's hometown, the memorial grew outside the Muhammad Ali Center as fans poured in from far and near for the glimpse at history. They left boxing gloves, butterflies and handwritten letters.

Famed fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco, who was born and raised in Ybor City, once said: "Cassius Clay was born in Louisville. Muhammad Ali was born in Miami."

Ali trained on Miami Beach in the early days of his pro career at the 5th Street Gym, a student of Hall of Famer Angelo Dundee. The building where they worked is long gone, knocked down in the early 1990s. But the gym, at least a new version of it, still exists in Miami Beach, with photos of Ali on the walls — partly to pay homage to the past, partly to inspire the fighters who train there now.

"He will always establish a standard of excellence, both in the ring and as a personality," said Dino Spencer, who runs the 5th Street Gym — which to this day hosts a boxing class named for Ali, who was the guest of honor when the gym reopened in 2010. "He got some people to hate him and some people to love him. That's a lot, to affect everybody. Fighters will always strive for the reactions he had. Most will never come close."

"His legend will live on," Spencer said as young fighters worked out inside the gym, while outside some passers-by stopped to take photos near the large image of Ali that overlooks the front door. "His stories will live on — and his example will live on here."

Louisville weeps, honors, remembers 06/05/16 [Last modified: Sunday, June 5, 2016 10:05pm]
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