- In an excerpt from his book Sting Like A Bee, Leigh Montville details the funeral and overarching legacy of Muhammad Ali, a year after his death on June 3, 2016.
The following is excerpted from STING LIKE A BEE by Leigh Montville. Copyright © 2017 by Leigh Montville. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
The hearse was a Cadillac, black and long and shiny, which figured because Muhammad Ali always was a Cadillac man. The first money he ever spent as a professional boxer went to West Broadway Motors in downtown Louisville to buy his mother a pink Eldorado. The second money went to buy an Eldorado for himself.
He roared through a string of Cadillacs in his early life, one replacing the other. He liked them flashy, too. He had one Cadillac that contained two phones so he could call two people at once if he wanted. A Cadillac was a sign of success. Wasn’t it? He showed up one day in Chicago with a new Cadillac low rider that was so flashy a friend told him it was embarrassing just to travel with him.
“You should be in a classier ride,” the friend suggested. “A Rolls or a Bentley.”
“What’s a Bentley?” the heavyweight champion of the world asked.
This final Cadillac was a 2016 XTS, which had been modified into a hearse somewhere in Ohio. The driver was thirty-three-year-old Chase Porter, whose family owns A. D. Porter & Sons, the funeral home that also buried Ali’s mother and father. Ron Price, another funeral home employee, rode shotgun. Muhammad rode in the back in a $25,000 mahogany box.
The day—June 10, 2016—was filled with schedules and grand moments and famous people. The hearse would take a trip of slightly over twenty-three miles to cover a ceremonial route that would include a couple of highways and then travel down Muhammad Ali Boulevard, which once was Walnut Street. It would go past the Andrew Young Center, which is very close to the Muhammad Ali Center, past the Beecher Terrace housing complex and past Central High School and past the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage and past 3302 Grand Avenue, Muhammad Ali’s boyhood home, which has been restored as a museum. The procession would continue past all kinds of memories, big and small, would accompany the famous man straight down Broadway past various public buildings that were important in his life. The finish would be Cave Hill Cemetery.
Former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and actor Will Smith, who played Ali in a movie, would be among the pallbearers at the private graveside service. A public memorial then would be held at a fifteen-thousand-seat arena named after a string of fried chicken restaurants, the KFC Yum! Center, maybe the first memorial service ever held in a building with an exclamation point in the middle of its name. Tickets for this event had disappeared in the blink of a civic eye, every seat filled. Former president Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal, and news host Bryant Gumbel would be among the speakers. Senior advisor Valerie Jarrett would read a statement from President Barack Obama, who had to attend his daughter’s high school graduation in Washington, D.C.
ESPN and TV One and Bounce TV all would carry the proceedings live. Millions would watch. Millions more, maybe billions around the world, would see at least a part of what took place on news reports. People in Louisville would stand and stare, laugh and cheer, maybe cry a little bit as the procession passed. Flowers would be thrown. Affection would be public and unforced.
This was the send-off from this mortal coil that a head of state would receive. The funeral of a top-level movie star, a pop singer, might contain some of the same elements. Michael Jackson came to mind. A boxer had it here. A boxer. There hadn’t been a funeral for an athlete in America this big probably since the one for Babe Ruth, who lay in state for two days and nights at Yankee Stadium in 1948. This was special. This was different. This was Muhammad Ali.
The first rose landed on the windshield of the 2016 Cadillac XTS almost as soon as the procession began. Chase Porter tried to sweep it off with his windshield wipers. A streak was spread across the glass. Roses would be a problem for the entire trip.
“Windshield wipers aren’t to remove flowers,” Porter said later to the writer from the New York Times.
The New York Times. This was not about a boxer at all. This was much bigger than that.
He was not an extremely old man when he died, seventy-four, same age as Bernie Sanders, who still was running for president, but it seemed as if Muhammad Ali had been old for a long, long time. Disease does that. He had begun to be compromised in the last two fights of his career. He was thirty-nine when he retired. That meant he had been sick, getting sicker, for more than thirty-five years.
The Parkinson’s disease gave him a tremor, a shake, that only grew worse with time. His movements became more and more restricted until the last few years when he hardly could move at all. The slur in his voice became worse and worse until he could not talk.
The only part that grew larger, better, was his aura. There was no stopping his aura.
Sweet Jesus, there wasn’t.
The years passed and he became a secular saint. He was a postmodern Mother Teresa, shuttled around the world to minister to the masses. He lit the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and there were quiet sighs mixed with cheers in every time zone on earth. He negotiated with despots to free hostages, didn’t even have to say a word; just his presence was a convincing argument. He was a symbol of unity and possibility.
Everyone can get along. That was the unspoken message assigned to him in his later years. He was the black man who didn’t disrupt the most segregated neighborhood. He was the Muslim who didn’t want to blow up anything except injustice. There was a universal acceptability to him. Is that the word? Acceptability? He was a night light in what often seemed to be a very dark room.
“Ali did more to normalize Islam in this country than perhaps any other Muslim in the history of the United States,” Sherman Jackson, a Muslim scholar, said when he spoke at the Jenazah, the Muslim funeral service held a day before the large service. “Ali made being a Muslim cool. Ali made being a Muslim dignified. Ali made being a Muslim relevant. Ali put the question of whether a person can be a Muslim and an American to rest.”
“He dared to love black people at a time when black people had a problem loving themselves,” Reverend Kevin Cosby, a Louisville pastor, said at the big service. “He dared to affirm the beauty of blackness.”
His silence in his later years allowed him to say more than he ever said in those rapid-fire pronouncements of his youth. He could be anything and everything people wanted him to be. His inactivity kept him out of trouble. There were no more divorces, no more controversial headlines. He couldn’t be found in Las Vegas in his declining years with young women and champagne and strange chemicals in the glove compartment of a rental car. He was on an island of purity, clean as everyone hoped an idol and role model would be. His most noted indulgence for the longest time was performing amateur magic tricks, pulling a coin from some adoring kid’s ear.
The $80 million Muhammad Ali Center, opened eleven years earlier, was a monument to this perfect life. It resembled a presidential library, a patriotic or religious shrine. Boy Scouts and 4-H club members and busloads of inner-city kids could be shuffled through exhibits that preach the power of positive thinking. He did it! You can, too! Get working! The motto for the center was “Be great. Do great things.” Mentioned often were “The Six Core Principles”:
Confidence—Belief in oneself, one’s abilities, and one’s future.
Conviction—A firm belief that gives one the courage to stand behind that belief, despite pressure to do otherwise.
Dedication—The act of devoting all of one’s energy, effort, and abilities to a certain task.
Giving—To present voluntarily without expecting something in return.
Respect—Esteem for, or a sense of the worth or excellence of, oneself and others.
Spirituality—A sense of awe, reverence, and inner peace inspired by a connection to all of creation and/or that which is greater than oneself.
Who could argue with any of that? Who?
“This bolt of lightning, this combination of power and beauty . . . ,” the comedian Billy Crystal said in a well-received eulogy. “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. Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night, in the heart of its most threatening gathering storm. His power toppled the mightiest of foes and his intense light shined on America and we were able to see clearly injustice, inequality, poverty, pride, selfrealization, courage, laughter, love, joy, and religious freedom for all. Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves, this brash young man who thrilled us, angered us, confused and challenged us ultimately became a silent messenger of peace who told us life is best when you build bridges between people not walls.”
He had been on Facebook pretty much until the day he died. Well, someone had been on Facebook for him. Every third or fourth day, a message would be sent through the electronic air. Sometimes it would be the commemoration of an event—fifty years, say, since he starched Henry Cooper for the second time—but usually it would be a piece of advice for modern living.
“In the ring I can stay until I’m old and gray because I know how to hit and dance away.”
“Eyes on the prize.” “The fight never stops.”
“Outrun the people who stop because of despair.”
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it—then I can achieve it.”
“Give everything your best shot.” “Team work makes the dream work.”
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” “Love is the net where hearts are caught like fish.” Wow.
The rough-edged, controversial character at the core of all this devotion was hard to glimpse through the haze of adoration in the days after his death. Flaws are not usually chiseled in marble. The time when he was loud and confident and half crazy with energy, when he startled and threatened his country, when he became known around the world, seemed like it happened long, long ago. There were constant mentions of it, for sure, stories that were told, black-and-white video clips that were shown, but when the clips were finished after a fuzzy minute or ninety seconds, the cameras returned to the pixilated present, sharp and clear on the screen.
The past could not compete. Jim Brown, the football great, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball great, would tell a story, make an observation. Pictures of the Thrilla in Manila or the Rumble in the Jungle or some other moment—there he is with the Beatles—would be shown. Ali himself would shout outrageous stuff, funny stuff, straight into the camera. It was all interesting, great, but black-and-white and dated. He could have been Winston Churchill talking about D-Day, Jimmy Stewart talking about the banking business in Bedford Falls, New York. The news or SportsCenter or whatever was the program of the moment would return sharp and crisp, digital, perfect color, today.
There was no context. There was no urgency.
There was no frame of reference.
The fighters from his time pretty much were gone. Joe Frazier was gone. Sonny Liston was gone. Ken Norton. Floyd Patterson. Henry Cooper was gone. Ernie Terrell. Cleveland (Big Cat) Williams. Archie Moore. Jerry Quarry. Oscar Bonavena was long gone. Ron Lyle. Jimmy Young. A bunch of fighters were gone. A bunch of sparring partners. Big Mel Turnbow. Jimmy Ellis. Eddie (Bossman) Jones. Gone.
The people who had been around him were gone. The cook, Lana Shabazz. The little guy, Sarria, who gave him rubdowns. The guy who guarded his body, the guy who found him entertainment in the night, the guy who carried the water bucket. Gone. Bundini Brown, noisy and unforgettable, gone for a while. Trainer Angelo Dundee, the voice of reason, was gone. The eleven white businessmen from Louisville who backed an eighteen-year-old Cassius Clay at the start of his career, who negotiated his course to the title, were gone. All eleven of them.
Malcolm X, of course, had been gone for a long time. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad was gone. Herbert Muhammad, Elijah’s son, who became Ali’s manager and confidant, was gone. Howard Cosell was gone. People today didn’t even know who Howard Cosell was. Don Dunphy was gone. The entire layer of famous sportswriters who criticized Ali mightily—Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon and Jim Murray and Dick Young and the rest—was gone. The talk show titans who loved him, easy money, easy conversation, Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, the guy from Philadelphia, had been gone for a while. Norman Mailer, who was fascinated by him, was gone. Budd Schulberg was gone. Alex Haley was gone. Sinatra! Sinatra loved him. Sinatra was gone. Elvis was gone. James Brown and Sam Cooke.
Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King and H. Rap Brown and Lester Maddox and J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon and Lewis
B. Hershey, head of the Selective Service. Gone. The judges from all his cases were gone. All nine of the judges from the Supreme Court who decided on his case were gone. The members of all those important boxing commissions who made all those important decisions were gone.
A bunch of the places from his time were gone. The 5th Street Gym in Miami was gone. The old Madison Square Garden was gone. The old Yankee Stadium was gone. The Houston Astrodome, the Eighth Wonder of the World, was vacant and falling down. A case could be made that boxing was gone, probably an overstatement because boxing always will survive in some elemental fashion, the cockroach of organized sport, but the heavyweight division certainly had been gone for a long while in the United States.
The Vietnam War was gone. Dusty history. President Obama had walked down the streets of Hanoi less than three weeks earlier, walked with some of those remaining Viet Cong, who were pretty old now. The civil rights problems were gone, replaced with other civil rights problems, no doubt about that, but water fountains and restrooms and restaurants and hotels and schools and public transportation and voting booths and a whole bunch of other stuff now were protected by law from discrimination. The talking points were gone, the talking points from Ali’s time.
A whole lot was gone.
The trick to seeing him as he really was would be to bring back everyone. Set the people up again in the present tense. Have them return to where everything happened. Let them walk and talk their way through the same troubles. Live everything again.
For a stretch of time, five years, 1966 through 1971, the most turbulent, divided stretch of this nation’s history outside the Civil War, Muhammad Ali was discussed as much as anyone who walked on the planet. He was part of arguments about race, religion, politics, war, and peace. Not to mention boxing. It was an unmatchable story.
Here was this kid, this athletic prodigy, who fell into the thrall of an offbeat religion, the Nation of Islam, not the Islam known around the world, the Nation of Islam, a racially based cult as curious as the Hare Krishnas, as suspicious as the Moonies or the Scientologists or any other group that rings your doorbell, ding-dong, and promises salvation as if it were as easy to purchase as a vacuum cleaner with three monthly payments. He fell for it, foolish and proud, young and impressionable, and he wound up in everyone’s house. Ding-dong. Every house in the world. Pretty much illiterate, he was supremely good-looking and supremely verbal at a time when television invaded everywhere and these qualities became more important. He could fight in a boxing ring in a way no one ever had seen, talk in an excited way no one really had heard.
He was part boob, part rube, part precocious genius, boom, somewhat honorable, and could be really funny.
He stumbled into his situation, said he didn’t want to go to war because of his religion, put one foot in front of another, and came out the other end a hero. Controversy found him and surrounded him. He fought the U.S. government, history, a Gallup poll majority of the American public, and Joe Frazier. He somehow survived.
Joe Namath was the quarterback of the New York Jets. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon were presidents of the United States. Martin Luther King was vibrant and alive. And then he was not. An unpopular war in a faraway country was a background to everyday life. Demonstrations and riots were commonplace. A powerful noise was everywhere, the sound of frustration and anger and civil discord. A boxer tried to stick and jab, land a haymaker against his own government.
Muhammad Ali, very much a human being, was in the middle of everything.
Right here. Now.
This was the guy who drove the Cadillac. Not the saint who rode in the back.