Friday, February 03, 2023  |


Will Smith, who played Ali on the silver screen, will be a pallbearer

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 1976: Muhammad Ali trains at Gleasons Gym for his third fight against Ken Norton, in New York. (Photo by: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)

Muhammad Ali trains at Gleasons Gym for his third fight against Ken Norton. Photo: The Ring Magazine.

The actor who played Muhammad Ali on the silver screen and the comedian who could mimic Ali to a tee will take part in his memorial service on Friday in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

Will Smith, who played “The Greatest” in the 2001 film, “Ali,” is slated to serve as one of Ali’s eight pallbearers. And funnyman Billy Crystal, whose “15 Rounds” performance at Ali’s 1979 retirement tribute is must-see viewing, is set to eulogize Ali, who died at 12:10 (ET) on Saturday due to septic shock resulting from unspecified natural causes.

Former president Bill Clinton, sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, and Ali’s wife, Lonnie, are also booked to deliver eulogies at the service, which will take place at the 22,000-seat basketball arena KFC YUM! Center at 2 p.m. (ET) and is open to the public.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan were scheduled to speak on Friday but got bumped, such is the demand to speak at Ali’s service; the former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis will serve as one of the pallbearers.

The Associated Press reported that years ago, Ali and those closest to him started amassing a collection of documents dubbed “The Book” that prearranged the happenings of Thursday and Friday. An Islamic funeral prayer program is set for Thursday.

“Everything that we’re doing here was blessed by Muhammad Ali and requested,” Ali family spokesman Bob Gunnell said at a news conference on Monday. “He wanted the memorial service to reflect his life and how he lived. And he wanted everyone to be able to attend. He was the people’s champ, so we wanted the memorial service to reflect that.”

Ali will be interred at Cave Hill Cemetery following the funeral. A procession beginning at 9 a.m. (ET) precedes Friday’s service and will transport Ali’s body through his childhood streets of Louisville, down an avenue that displays his name. The motorcade is scheduled to follow the same route that a parade took when a young Cassius Clay — before he converted to Islam and changed his name — was honored for winning a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics.

The speakers at the memorial service on Friday are a diverse group, representing a number of faiths and include, Protestant minister Kevin Cosby, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Rabbi Joe Rapport, along with Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Mormon. The service will be led by the California imam and Muslim-American scholar, Zaid Shakir.

“It’s only fitting that the people have the opportunity to send him off with a very robust commemoration,” Shakir said on Monday. “So we thank the family for that.”

An Islamic funeral prayer program will be held on Thursday at Freedom Hall in Louisville at 12 p.m. (ET) and is expected to last around 30 minutes. Ali’s last fight in Louisville — against Willi Besmanoff on November 29, 1961 – was at Freedom Hall. He also made his pro debut there a year earlier. The free event will be open to the public and a total of 14,000 tickets will be available on a first come, first serve basis.

Tickets for Friday’s service go on sale Wednesday, starting at 10 a.m. at the center box office and will be restricted to four per person. For those unable to attend, the service will be streamed live from

As a side note and of interest given his battle with Parkinson’s, Ali’s brain won’t be donated for research. There is an existing debate whether boxing caused Ali’s Parkinson’s. Dr. Abe Lieberman, who treated Ali for the disease, expressed doubt the sport played a role in Ali’s developing the malady, but he’s not completely positive it didn’t. While Lieberman helped diagnose Ali in 1984, he thinks Ali may have had it for his 1980 bout with Larry Holmes, Lieberman said at a news conference on Monday.

Ali claimed, according to the Associated Press, that if he had an idea “Holmes was going to whip me and damage my brain, I would not have fought him. But losing to Holmes and being sick are not important in God’s world.”

Mitch Abramson is a former reporter for the New York Daily News and can be reached on Twitter at: @Mabramson13.