Ali, who spent his latter years silenced by the degenerative brain condition Parkinson’s began planning his funeral some years ago, insisting on an open and inclusive service, and more than 18,000 thousand people had gathered to pay their last respects.
“My father wanted it in an arena so everybody can come and be there,” his daughter Laila had said. ‘Trust me, if ten million people come that’s not going to be enough for him. He’s going to be like ‘That’s it?’”
Ali was married four times and had seven daughters – two by extra-marital relationships – and two sons.
Just three months after the assassination of John F Kennedy in February 1964, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become undisputed Champion of the World for the first time.
“I’m the King of the World! King of the World!”, he shouted exultantly, dancing round the ring. The following day he announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. Within a matter of weeks he had become Muhammad Ali, the name given to him by the movement’s leader, Elijah Muhammad.
“I am America,’ he declared. ‘I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
For many, Ali was a lodestone of the tumultuous decade that was the Sixties – he bestrode it – brilliant, impudent, provocative, beautiful – a man who dared in 1967, at the height of his renown, to stand against his government and refuse to fight in Vietnam, and was vilified and punished for it, but who emerged from three years of professional exile to conquer the world– ‘a new kind of black man’, as he said.