“Last week when we heard the news, time stopped. There was no war, no terrorists, no global catastrophes. The world stopped and took a deep breath and sighed,” Billy Crystal said this afternoon during the televised Muhammad Ali memorial.
“It’s hard to describe how much he meant to me,” said Crystal, who got his first TV break at a 1974 event honoring Ali hosted by veteran sportswriter Dick Schaap, at which Crystal did an impression of Ali being interviewed by ABC’s Howard Cosell. Crystal and Ali became friends at that event and remained close for decades. Watch the video of his tribute above.
“You had to live in his time. … Every one of his fights was an aura of a Super Bowl. He’d predict the round he would knock someone out in, and then he would do it!” Crystal said, appearing toward the end of an hours-long memorial service at which dozens spoke.
Nearly three hours into the ceremony, Crystal started off with: “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. We’re at the halfway point. I was clean shaven when this started.”
“He was funny he was beautiful. He was the most perfect athlete e you ever saw – and those were his own words,” Crystal joked, appearing toward the end of a service at the Yum Center in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, KY.
“But he was so much more than a fighter, as time went on. With Bobby Kennedy gone, Martin Luther King gone, Malcolm X gone, who was there to relate to, when Vietnam exploded in our face? There were millions of young men my age, eligible for the draft for a war we didn’t’ believe in, all of us huddled on the conveyor belt that was rapidly feeding the War Machine. But it was Ali who stood up for us by standing up or himself.”
Crystal likened him to “a tremendous bolt lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air. A fantastic combination of power and beauty. … 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, self realization, courage, laughter, love joy and religious freedom for all. Ali forces us to take a look at ourselves. This brash young man who thrilled us, angered us, confused us and challenged us, ultimately became the silent messenger of peace, who told us that life is best when you built bridges between people, not walls.”
President Obama, in a statement read by White House adviser Valeria Jarrett, called Ali “bigger, brighter and more original and influential than just about anyone of his era. You couldn’t have made him up. And yes, he was pretty too.
“Ali was America: brash, defiant, pioneering, joyful, never tired, always game to beat the odds,” Obama said, praising him for being “loud, proud and unabashedly black voice in a Jim Crow world. His jabs knocked some sense into us.”
The president added: “Muhammad Ali was America. Muhammad Ali will always be America.”
Watch Obama’s full remarks here:
Among the many who eulogized the gold-medal Olympian were Bryant Gumbel and President Clinton, who suggested the second act of Ali’s life, when he was stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, was in many ways “more important, because he refused to be imprisoned by a disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandela was kept in prison in South Africa.”
Ali’s body arrived at Cave Hill Cemetery this morning, where he was buried in a private ceremony ahead of this afternoon’s service; pallbearers included Will Smith and boxers Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. The motorcade carrying Ali’s body, about 16 vehicles long, passed the hospital where he was born, his childhood home, the gym where he first trained, the high school he graduated, the arena where he fought his first professional bout, and the Muhammad Ali Center he established, before arriving at the cemetery. As Ali’s funeral processional passed his childhood home, fans greeted the motorcade and CNN’s Carolyn Sung reported Ali’s relatives, along with Tyson and Smith had their windows open and greeted those who lined the streets in the heat.
The boxing legend and civil rights champion died June 3 at 74. Ali, who won the 1960 Olympic gold medal and remains the only fighter to win the heavyweight belt three different times, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the mid-1980s.
Last Friday afternoon, before Ali passed away, Crystal tweeted the video of his 11-minute 1979 performance at Ali’s retirement ceremony, called “15 Rounds,” with the caption, “For the greatest man I have ever known.”