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THE SITUATION ROOM
Remembering Muhammad Ali. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired June 10, 2016 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LONNIE ALI, WIDOW OF MUHAMMAD ALI: -- impeccable as he burst into the national stage just as television was hungry for a star to change the face of sports. You know, if Muhammad didn't like the rules, he rewrote them. His religion, his name, his beliefs were his to fashion, no matter what the cost.
[17:00:22] The timing of his actions coincided with a broader shift in cultural attitudes across America, particularly on college campuses. When he had challenged the U.S. government on the draft, his chance of success was slim to none. That the timing of his decision converged with a rising tide of discontent on the war.
Public opinion shifted in his direction followed by a court ruling. In a stunning reversal of fortunes, he was free to return to the ring. When he traveled to Central Africa to reclaim his title from George Foreman, none of the sports writers thought he could win. In fact, most of them feared for his life. But in what the Africans call the miracle at 4 a.m., he became a champion once more.
And as the years passed, and though slowed by Parkinson's, Muhammad was compelled by his faith to use his name and his notoriety to support the victims of poverty and strife. He served as a U.N. messenger of peace, traveled to places like war-torn Afghanistan. He campaigned as an advocate of reducing the yoke of third-world debt voice. He stunned the world when he secured the release of 15 hostages from Iraq.
As he voice grew softer, his message took on greater meeting. He came full circle with the people of his country. When he lifted a torch, that seemed to create new light in the 1996 Olympics.
Muhammad always knew instinctively the road he needed to travel. His friends know what I mean when I say he lived in the moment. He neither dwelled in the past nor harbored anxiety about the future. Muhammad loved to laugh, and he loved to play practical jokes on just about everybody. He was sure-footed in his self-awareness, secure in his faith, and he did not fear death.
Yet, his timing is once again poignant. His passing and his meaning for our time should not be overlooked. As we face uncertainty in a world and divisions at home, as to who we are as a people, Muhammad's life provides useful guidance.
Muhammad was not one to give up on the power of understanding the boundless possibilities of love and the strength of our diversity. He counted among his friends people of all political persuasions, saw truth in all faith and the nobility of all races, as witnessed here today. Muhammad may have challenged his government, but he never ran from it or from America. He loved this country, and he understood the hard choices that are born of freedom.
I think he saw a nation's soul measured by the soul of its people. For his part, he saw the good soul in everyone, and if you were one of the lucky ones to have met him, you know what I meant. He awoke every morning thinking about his own salvation, and he would often say, I just want to get to heaven and I've got to do a lot of good deeds to get there.
And I think Muhammad's hope is that his life provides some guidance on how we might achieve for all people what we aspire for ourselves and our families. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, Maryum Ali.
MARYUM ALI, DAUGHTER OF MUHAMMAD ALI: Peace be with you, everyone here, and on behalf of the Ali family, I just want to say thank you to Louisville, Kentucky, all the love you've shown us in our lives has been unbelievable.
[17:05:10] Also, I want to thank the entire globe. My father was loved all over. The processional today was overwhelming but so beautiful. We love you just like you love us. Thank you very much.
As you know, my father loved poetry. He was always rhyming and promoting his fights. And he had poems of the heart, spiritual poems and poems to promote. And I just wrote a piece for him, in honor of him on behalf of my sisters and brothers and everyone who loved my father.
It's called "Thank You Our Dear Father."
My heart was sore when your sick spirit soared. Your physical body is no more, but my mind tells different tales of all that you taught me, your family and the masses. Mostly importantly, the belief in God, who created humanity to thrive in quality. You fought for a purpose to uphold the principle that we as a people have divine human rights.
Staring right into the eyes of oppression, you proclaimed your beautiful complexion. Your God-given skills, your independent will and the freedom of your faith. As your daughter, I am grateful for all of our conversations about men, women and relationships, guiding me to first have a loving relationship with self, refusing anyone to chip away at my esteem and expect the respect of a queen.
Thank you, our dear father, for asking us to think about our purpose and showing us the beauty of service to others. We marveled at your sincere love for people as you treated all who approached you with dignity.
Whether they were rich or poor, your kindness was unconditional. Never perceiving anyone as beneath you. So many have shared personal stories about what you have meant to them as you have exemplified values and qualities that have enhanced their lives. If I had eve dollar for every story, I could pay for the sky. Your family is so proud of the legacy you left behind. But I hope that the history of you can help...
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: We apologize for the technical difficulties we're having from Louisville with the service, memorial service for Muhammad Ali. Again, that was his daughter, Maryum -- Maryum speaking there on his behalf.
Let's listen back in.
M. ALI: ... in the Middle East or anywhere else in this world, we crave for peace. The peace that you rest in now. We will forever cherish the 74 years you graced this earth. You will be greatly missed. But now we send you off in celebration, a blown kiss and prayers as you enter your final round. God's last boxing bell will sound in heaven.
I love you. We all love you. Thank you very much.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, Rasheda Ali-Walsh.
RASHEDA ALI-WALSH, MUHAMMAD ALI'S DAUGHTER: We are so honored that you have packed this room with your love. Thank you all. Thank you so much for being here today to celebrate our father.
You were the greatest father to us, and it was God's will to take you home. Your family will try our best to make you proud and carry on your legacy of giving and love. You have inspired us and the world to be the best version of ourselves. May you live in paradise, free from suffering. You shook up the world in life. Now you're shaking up the world in death.
Daddy's looking at us now, right, and saying, "I told you I was the greatest." No one compares to you, Daddy. You once said, "I know where I'm going, and I know the truth. And I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be who I am." Now you are free to be with your creator. We love you so much, daddy. Until we meet again, fly, butterfly, fly.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hello. My name is Ally Gina Pullup (ph). I was born on Muhammad Ali's birthday and was named after him. He used to call me the little greatest. We can all learn from Muhammad's example of kindness and understanding.
When Muhammad was asked how he would like to be remembered, he said, "I'd like to -- I'd like for them to say, 'He took a few cups of love. He took one tablespoon of patience, one teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness. He took quart of laugher, one pinch of concern, and then he mixed willingness with happiness. He added lots of faith, and he stirred it up well. That he spread it over a span of a lifetime, and he served it to each and every deserving person he met'." Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, Natasha Mundkur. NATASHA MUNDKUR, UNIVERSITY OF LOUISVILLE STUDENT: Before I begin, I
would just like to say that I am truly humbled and honored to be here. And I would like to thank the Muhammad Ali Center and the Ali family for giving me the opportunity to speak to echo the voice that Muhammad has given me.
So let me tell you a story about a man. A man who refused to believe that reality was limitation to achieve the impossible. A man who once reached up through the pages of a textbook and touched the heart of an 8-year-old girl whose reflection of herself mirrored those who cannot see past the color of her skin. But instead of drawing on that pain from the distorted reality, she found strength, just as this man did when he stood tall in the face of pelting rain and shouted, "I am the disturbance in the sea of your complacency, and I will never stop shaking your waves."
And his voice echoed through hers, through mine. And she picked up the rocks that were thrown at her, and she threw them back with a voice so powerful that it turned all the pain that she had faced in her life into strength and tenacity.
[17:15:14] And now that 8-year-old girl stands before you to tell you that Ali's cry still shakes these waves today; that we are to find strength in our identities, whether we are black or white or Asian or Hispanic, LGBT, disabled or able-bodied, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Christian. His cry represents those who have not been heard and invalidates the idea that we are to be conformed to one normative standard.
That is what it means to defeat the impossible, because impossible is not a fact. Impossible is an opinion. Impossible is nothing.
When I look into this crowd, I smile. I smile to recognize that he is not really gone. He lives in you and he lives in me; and he lives in every person that he has touched in every corner of this world.
Reality was never a limitation for Ali, for us, just as every punch his opponents threw. Impossible is never enough to knock us down, because we are Ali. We are greater than the rocks or the punches that we throw at each other. We have the ability to empower and inspire and to connect and to unify, and that will live on forever.
So let me tell you a story about a man. His name is Muhammad Ali. He is the greatest of all time. He is from Louisville, Kentucky, and he lives in each and every one of us. And his story is far from over. Thank you.
Ladies and gentlemen, John Ramsey.
JOHN RAMSEY, FRIEND OF MUHAMMAD ALI: First of all, on behalf of my fellow Louisvillians to the Ali family, you have our condolences, our heartfelt prayers. And for Lonnie Ali, a very special prayer. We know that Muhammad was blessed with many gifts but none more precious than Lonnie Ali, and we thank you so much.
You know, I've got to tell you, Louisville, when I was in the procession today and I saw the tens and thousands of people and all the warmth and the love and the respect that was shown for Muhammad, I've got to tell you, my heart swelled with pride. I know he was watching from above, and I know he absolutely loved it, you know.
But I don't think he'd be surprised. I think Muhammad would say, "Louisville, Kentucky, the greatest city of all times. I'm feeling good. Man. I tell you what, how can we lose with the stuff we use? I'm feeling so good, I think I'm going to make a comeback and change my name back to Walnut Street. That's how good I feel."
You know, for me, I always felt connected to Muhammad even before I'd met him. You know, maybe it was the fact that I was a Louisville boy. Maybe it's the fact that I loved the Louisville Cardinals like Muhammad.
[17:20:21] You know, but as our relationship evolved, I found that a lot of people felt this personal connection with Muhammad. And that's part of the Ali magic.
You know, initially, for a lot of men my age and certainly myself, it was the athlete that I was attracted to. I mean, that kind of size, that kind of speed, that agility, that grace not only made him the heavyweight champion of the world three times, but it made him "Sports Illustrated" sportsmen of the century, the A.P. athlete of the century. Certainly, it made him the athlete -- a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. But I would argue that the combination of compassion, kindness, love and the ability to lift us up made him a once-in-a- lifetime person.
You know, Muhammad was blessed with many gifts, as I said, and he was a wise and faithful steward of those gifts. Many stories about Muhammad, but there's a couple that really to me encapsulate what he was all about.
I remember back in 2000, I made a trip to the Summer Olympics with Muhammad. And one day he decided we were going to go see a boxing match. And I remember, we're ringside, the American wins, 15,000 people are chanting, "USA, USA!" And I thought, this is my Olympic moment. You know, I was filled with patriotic pride.
The boxer came down from the ring. He took the obligatory picture with Muhammad, the fist-to-chin shot. Hundreds of photographers from around the world were taking pictures. You know, thousands of people cheering for Muhammad and this victorious fighter.
And Muhammad leaned down to me and whispered in my ear, he said, "I want to see the loser."
I'm like, "Excuse me?"
"I want to see the loser."
So I motioned over to him, and I looked at an official, and I said, "Muhammad wants to see the loser. Can we go to the losing locker room?" And we go to the losing locker room, and there's not tens of thousands
of people. There's not any photographers. There's just a kid in a corner on a stool with a towel around his neck. He's got a bloody mouth under his eye. This has got to be the lowest point of his athletic career, at the very least. Felt like he let down his country. He's defeated, and the vibe in that room was literally the lowest of low.
But then when Muhammad walks in, this kid recognizes him instantly, and in broken English, he says, "Muhammad Ali!" And Muhammad starts dancing. He said, "Show me what you got." And Muhammad started throwing out jabs, and this kid starts ducking and smiling. Muhammad grabs him in a bear hug. He said, "I saw what you did out there, man. You look good. You're moving good. You could be a champion, man. Don't give up."
And I remember, it warmed my heart how he took this kid from here to here in an instant. And -- and I remember, I got in the car and I said to Muhammad, "I try to be a nice guy but I've got to tell you, I got caught up in the moment. I didn't give that losing guy a second thought." I said, "You're the greatest."
Muhammad said, "Tell me something I don't already know."
He -- and -- but what I don't want people to forget, no doubt, to me, he's the finest example of a human that I've ever seen. The finest example of a great human being that I've ever seen, of the kindness that a human possesses. That was Muhammad Ali.
But don't forget about this, man. Muhammad was the coolest cat in the room. I mean, he was good looking. He had charm. He had charisma. He had swagger before we knew that swagger was. I mean, I remember, I went to -- when -- about 25 years ago he came to town to visit his mother, and he wanted to go to Outback Steakhouse. I had a friend there. Big Muhammad fan.
So we came in and at the time here in Louisville, there was a fireman's convention. And all of these guys had their engine numbers on their shirt, and sure enough I'd seen this thing a million times. The guys line up for an autograph. And I said to Muhammad, I said, "Muhammad, if you'd like, I'll play the bad guy. I'll tell them to let you eat and sign autographs later."
Muhammad would have none of it. He's like, "No I'll sign between bites." So he's taking bites of his food and he's signing.
This one guy walks up, and you could tell he was a big fan. He knew Muhammad. All of his adrenaline flowing as a champ. He said, "I saw the stand you made in the civil rights movement. I saw your stance against the Vietnam War." He said, "I've got to tell you, Champ, you're my hero." He said, "I've got a picture of you at my firehouse. You're my hero."
[17:25:08] Muhammad, he wanted to change the channel. So he said -- the guy said, you're the real hero, jumping in fires, saving lives, saving babies, putting your life on the line." He said, "Man. You're the real hero."
And the fireman responds real quickly. He said, "Man, but you fought the Bear, Sonny Liston." He says, "You fought the Rabbit, Floyd Patterson. You fought Big George Foreman. You fought -- you fought "Smoking" Joe Frazier."
Muhammad interrupted him real quick, and he goes, "Yes, but Joe wasn't really smoking."
And I said, "Muhammad, that's a good line."
He goes, "You're right. Write that down."
But it wasn't all about signing autographs and kissing babies. You know, if there was a village that needed food in a third-world country, Muhammad was on plane, will travel with check. If there was a conflict and he could be part of a resolution, again, Muhammad will travel.
As Lonnie had mentioned, if there were hostages to be released, Muhammad was a man of action.
One of my favorite quotes -- and I think it's right here in your program -- Muhammad said, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." And I just want to say, Champ, your rent is paid in full. Your rent is paid in full. Your rent is paid in full!
And you know, in fact, I think he's paid it forward. Because he has taught us to love rather than to hate. To look for commonalities rather than differences. And so therefore, I think he's really paid it forward for all of us.
So, as we all know now, the fight is over, but I'm here to tell you, the decision is in and it is unanimous. Because of Muhammad Ali, we all win. The world wins.
Thank you so much, Muhammad. It is time for a man of peace to rest in peace. Thank you so very much.
BILLY CRYSTAL, COMEDIAN: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. We're at the halfway point. I was clean shaven when this started.
Dear Lonnie, family, friends, Mr. President, members of the clergy, all these amazing people here in Louisville, today this outpouring of love and respect proves that 35 years after he stopped fighting, he is still the champion of the world.
Last week, when we heard the news, time stopped. There was no war, there were no terrorists, no global catastrophes. The world stopped, took a deep breath and sighed.
Since then, my mind has been racing through my relationship with this amazing man, which is now 42 years that I've known him. Every moment I can think of is cherished. And while others can tell you of his accomplishments, he wanted me to speak and tell you of some personal moments that we had together. I met him in 1974. I was just getting started as a stand-up comedian
and struggling. But I had one good routine. It was a three-minute conversation between Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali, where I would imitate both of them.
Ali had just defeated George Foreman and regained the heavyweight title. "Sport" magazine made him the man of the year. Dick Schapp, a wonderful writer and a great man, was the editor for "Sport," and he was going to host a televised dinner honoring Muhammad Ali.
So Dick called my agent, looking for a comedian who did some sports material. As fate would have it, that comedian was not available, and she wisely said -- it's destiny, man. And she wisely said, "But listen, I've got this young kid, and he does this great imitation of Ali and Cosell. He'd be perfect for you."
I don't know why, but Dick said, "OK, I'll try him. If he stinks, I can cut him out of the show." I couldn't believe it. My first time on television, and it would be with Ali.
[17:30:01] I arrived at the Plaza Hotel, the event was jammed, I met Mr. Schaap, who would later become a part of my family. And he said, well, how should I introduce you? Nobody knows who you are. And I said, just say one of Ali's closest and dearest friends.
CRYSTAL: And my thought was, I'll get right to the microphone, go into my Howard Cosell, and I'll be fine. And then I nervously move into the jammed ballroom and that's when I saw him for the first time in person.
It's very hard to describe how much he meant to me. You had to live in his time. It's great to look at clips and it's amazing that we have them but to live in his time, watching his fights, his experience in the genius of his talent was absolutely extraordinary. Every one of his fights was an aura of a Super Bowl. He did things nobody would do. He predicted the round that he would knock somebody out and then he would do it.
He was funny. He was beautiful. He was the most perfect athlete you ever saw and those were his own words.
CRYSTAL: 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 that we didn't believe in. All of us huddled on the conveyor belt that was rapidly feeding the ear machine. But it was Ali who stood up for us by standing up for himself.
And after he was stripped of the title --
(APPLAUSE) CRYSTAL: After he was stripped of the title and the right to fight anywhere in the world, he gave speeches at colleges and on television that totally reached me. He seemed as comfortable talking to kings and queens as the lost and unrequited. He never lost his sense of humor, even as he lost everything else. He was always himself, willing to give up everything for what he believed in.
And his passionate rhetoric and what the life in plight of black people in our country resonated strongly in my house. I grew up in a house that was dedicated to civil rights. My father was the producer of jazz concerts in New York City and was one of the first to integrate bands in the '40s and '50s. Jazz musicians referred to my dad as the Branch Ricky of jazz. My uncle and my family, Jewish people, produced "Strange Fruit," Billy Holiday's classic song, describing the lynching of African-Americans in this country.
And so I felt him. And now there he was just a few feet from me. I couldn't stop looking at him and he seemed to like glow and he was like in slow motion, his amazing face smiling and laughing.
I was seated a few seats from him on the dais, and in the room were all the athletes in their individual sports, great ones. Gino Marchetti of the Baltimore Colts, Franco Harris of the Steelers, Archie Griffin who had won the Heisman from Ohio State. Literary legends, Neil Simon, George Plimpton, all in a dais fawning over Ali, who then looked at me.
CRYSTAL: With an expression that seemed to say, "What is Joel Grey doing here?"
CRYSTAL: Mr. Schaap introduced me as one of Ali's closest and dearest friends. Two people clapped.
CRYSTAL: My wife and the agent.
CRYSTAL: I rose, Ali still staring at me. I passed right behind him, got to the podium and went right into the Cosell, "Hello, everyone, Howard Cosell coming to you live from Zaire. Some would pronounce it, Zaire, they're wrong."
CRYSTAL: It got big laughs. And then I went into the Ali.
"Everybody's talking about George Foreman, George Foreman. George Foreman's ugly, he's so slow. George was slow, I catch 'em, and then I rope-a-dope, I rope-a-dope George, and I'm so fast at 33 years of age, I'm so fast I could turn off the lights and be in my bed before the room gets dark."
CRYSTAL: "However, I'm announcing tonight that I got new religious beliefs. From now on I want to be known as Izzy Yiskowitz. I am now an Orthodox Jew, Izzy Yiskowitz, I am the greatest of all time."
CRYSTAL: The audience exploded. See, no one had ever done him before. And here I was a white kid from Long Island imitating the greatest of all time, and he was loving it. When I was done, he gave me this big bearhug and he whispered in my ear, "You're my little brother."
CRYSTAL: Which is what he always called me until the last time that I saw him. We were always there for each other, and if he needed me for something, I was there.
[17:35:02] He came to anything I asked him to do. Most memorable, he was an honorary chairman for a dinner at a very important event where I was being honored by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He did all of this promotion for it. He came to the dinner. He sat with my family the entire evening. He took photographs with everybody. The most famous Muslim man in the world honoring his Jewish friend. And --
CRYSTAL: Because he was there, because he was there we raised a great deal of money, and I was able to use it to endow the university in Jerusalem with something that I told him about. And it was something that he loved the theory of, and it thrives to this day. It's called Peace Through the Performing Arts. It's a theater group where Israeli, Arab and Palestinian actors, writers and directors all work together in peace, creating original works of art.
CRYSTAL: And that doesn't happen without him. I had so many, so many funny unusual moments with him. I sat next to him at Howard Cosell's funeral. A very somber day to be sure. Closed casket was on the stage, Muhammad and I were sitting somewhere over there next to each other, and he quietly whispered to me, "Little brother, do you think he's wearing his hairpiece?"
CRYSTAL: So I said, "I don't think so."
CRYSTAL: "Well, then how will God recognize him?" So I said, "Champ, once he opens his mouth, God will know." So we started laughing. It was a muffled laugh at first, but then we couldn't contain ourselves. Here we were at a funeral, me and Muhammad Ali, laughing like two little kids who heard something dirty in church, you know? We're just laughing and laughing. And then he looked at me and he whispered, "Howard was a good man." One time he asked me if I would like to run with him one morning, do road work with him. I said, well, that would be amazing. Where do you run? He said, well, I run at this country club, and I run on the golf course early in the morning. It's very private. Nobody bothers me. We'll have a great time."
And I said, "Champ, I can't run there. The club has a reputation for being restricted." What does restricted mean?" "They don't allow Jews there. They don't have any Jewish members." He was incensed. "I'm a black Muslim and they let me run there. Little brother, I'm never going to run there again." And he didn't.
CRYSTAL: My favorite memory -- my favorite memory perhaps was in 1979. He had just retired and there was a retirement party at the Forum, Los Angeles, for Muhammad and 20,000 of his closest friends in Los Angeles.
CRYSTAL: I performed a piece that I had created, the imitation had grown into a life story. It's called "15 Rounds." And I play him from the age of 18 until he's 36, ready for the rematch with Leon Spinks. I posted it on the Internet last week, footage that nobody had ever seen before of me portraying Ali doing his life for him all those years ago in 1979.
There were 20,000 people there, but I was doing it only for him. It's one of my favorite performances that I've ever done in my life. I sort of got lost in him. I didn't even know where I was at the end of the performance.
And suddenly I'm backstage with another heavyweight champion, Richard Pryor. And Pryor is holding on to me, crying, and then I see Ali coming and he's got a full head of steam, and he's looking only at me, and he nudged Mr. Pryor aside and he whispered in my ear with a big bearhug, "Little brother, you made my life better than it was."
CRYSTAL: But didn't he make all of our lives a little bit better than they were?
CRYSTAL: That -- that, my friends, is my history with a man and I have labored to come up with a way to describe the legend. He was a tremendous bolt of lightning created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty. We've seen still photographs of lightning bolts 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.
[17:40:06] 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 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 taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls.
CRYSTAL: My friends -- my friends, only once in a thousand years or so do we get to hear a Mozart, or see a Picasso, read a Shakespeare. Ali was one of them, and yet at his heart, he was still a kid from Louisville who ran with the gods and walked with the crippled and smiled at the foolishness of it all. He is gone, but he will never die.
He was my big brother. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, Bryant Gumbel.
BRYAN GUMBEL, SPORTSCASTER: The great Maya Angelou, who was herself no stranger to fame, wrote that ultimately people will forget what you said and people will forget what you did, but that no one will ever forget how you made them feel.
As applied to Muhammad Ali, the march of time may one day diminish his boasts and his poetry, maybe even his butterflies and bees. It may even one day dull the memories of the "Thrilla in Manila" and the "Rumble in the Jungle." But I doubt any of us will ever forget how Muhammad Ali made us feel. And I'm not talking about how proud he made you feel with his exploits, or how special he made you feel when you were privileged enough to be in his company.
I'm talking about how he gripped our hearts and our souls and our conscience, and made our fights his fights for decades.
People like me, who were once young, semi-gifted and black, will never forget what he freed within us. Some of us, like him, took pride in being black, bold and brash. And because we were so unapologetic, we were, in the eyes of many, way too uppity. We were way too arrogant. Yet we reveled in being like him. By stretching society's boundaries as he did, he gave us levels of strength and courage we didn't even know we had.
But Ali's impact was not limited to those of a certain race or of a certain religion or of a certain mindset. The greatness of this man for the ages was that he was in fact a man for all ages. Has any man ever scripted a greater arc to his life? What does it say of a man, any man, that he can go from being viewed as one of his country's most polarizing figures to arguably its most beloved.
[17:45:12] GUMBEL: And to do so without changing his nature or for a second compromising his principles.
Yes, you know, there were great causes, there were great national movements, there were huge divisions that afforded Ali unusual opportunities to symbolize our struggles. But Harry Truman had it right when he said, "Men make history and now the other way around." Or as Lauryn Hill so nicely put it, "Consequence is no coincidence."
Befitting his stature as the GOAT, Muhammad Ali never shied away from a fight. He fought not just the biggest and baddest men of his day inside the ropes, but outside the ring he also went toe to toe with an array of critics, a seemingly endless succession of societal norms, the architects of a vile, immoral war, the U.S. government. He even fought, ultimately to his detriment, the limitations of Father Time.
Strictly speaking, fighting is what he did. But he broadened that definition by sharing his struggles with us and by viewing our struggles as his. And so it was that at various times he accepted and led battles on behalf of his race, in support of his generation, in defense of his religious beliefs and ultimately in spite of his disease.
I happen to have been overseas working in Norway this past week, and my buddy Matt called, told me the champ had been taken to the hospital, and that this time it was really serious. Right away I called Lonnie, who was as always a pillar of strength. And as we discussed the medical details, the doctor's views and the ugly realities of mortality, Lonnie said, "Bryant, the world still needs him." And indeed it does.
The world needs a champion who always worked to bridge the economic and social divides that threaten a nation that he dearly loved. The world needs a champion that always symbolized the best of Islam to offset the hatred born of fear. And the world needs a champion who believed in fairness and inclusion for all.
"Hating people because of their color is wrong," Ali said. "And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong."
GUMBEL: Yes, we do need Muhammad Ali now. We need the strength and the hope, the compassion, the conviction that he always demonstrated. But this time our beloved champion is down. And for once he will not get up. Not this time. Not ever again.
Let me close with a quick personal story. Fifty years ago, Muhammad Ali defeated George Chuvalo in Toronto, Canada. The very next day, he showed up in my Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. As Ali got out of a car in the driveway at the home of Elijah Muhammad, I happened to be next door shooting hoops in a friend's backyard. I of course very quickly ran to the fence, and for the first time in my life, I shook the champ's hand. I was 17, I was awestruck and, man, I thought he was the greatest.
[17:50:05] Now half a century and a lifetime of experiences later, I am still awestruck. And I'm convinced more than ever that Muhammad Ali is the greatest.
GUMBEL: To be standing here by virtue of his and Lonnie's request, it's mind-numbing. The honor that Ali has done me today, as he goes to his grave, is one that I will take to mine.
God bless you, Champ.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, the 42nd president of the United States, the honorable William Jefferson Clinton.
BILL CLINTON, 42ND PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you. I can just hear Muhammad say now, "Well, I thought I should be eulogized by at least one president."
CLINTON: And by making you last a long, long, long, long line, I guaranteed you a standing ovation.
CLINTON: I am trying to think of what has been left unsaid.
First, Lonnie, I thank you and the members of the family for telling me that he actually, as Bryant said, picked us all to speak and giving me a chance to come here. I thank you for what you did to make the second half of his life greater than the first.
CLINTON: I thank you for the Muhammad Ali Center and what it has come to represent to so many people. Here is what I would like to say. I have spent a lot of time now, as I get older and older and older, trying to figure out what makes people tick, how do they turn out the way they are, how do some people refuse to become victims and rise from every defeat.
We've all seen the beautiful pictures of the humble Muhammad Ali with a boy and people visiting and driving by. I think he decided something I hope every young person here will decide. I think he decided very young to write his own life story.
CLINTON: I think he decided, before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided that he would not be ever be disempowered. He decided that not his race nor his place, nor the expectations of others, positive, negative or otherwise, would strip from him the power to write his own story. He decided first to use these stunning gifts. His strength and speed in the ring, his wit and way with words, in managing the public, and his mind and heart, to figure out at a fairly young age, who he was, what he believed and how to live with the consequences of acting on what he believed.
A lot of people make it to steps one and two, and still just can't quite manage living with the consequences of what he believed.
[17:55:09] For the longest time, in spite of all the wonderful things that have been said here, I remember thinking when I was a kid, "This guy is so smart," and he never got credit for being as smart as he was. And then --
CLINTON: I don't think he ever got the credit for being until later, as wise as he was. In the end, besides being a lot of fun to be around and basically a universal soldier for our common humanity, I will always think of Muhammad as a truly free man of faith. And being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life. Something like Parkinson's could come along. But being free, he realized that life still was open to choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that have brought us all here today in honor and love.
CLINTON: And the only other thing I would like to say I think we all need to really, really think about, is that the first part of his life was dominated by the triumph of his truly unique gifts. We should never forget them we should never stop looking at the movies, we should thank Will Smith for making his movie. We should all be thrilled. It was a thing of beauty.
CLINTON: But the second part of his life was 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.
CLINTON: That is, in the second half of his life, he perfected gifts that we all have, every single solitary one of us have gifts of mind and heart. It's just that he found a way to release them in ways large and small. I ask Lonnie, she will remember a time when they were still living in Michigan, and I gave a speech in southwest Michigan at an economic club there, and it's sort of a ritual when a president leaves office, and you have to get re-acclimated. Nobody plays a song when you walk in a room anymore.
(LAUGHTER) CLINTON: You don't really know what you're supposed to do. And this club here there, it's called the economic club or something like that, they're used to acting like you still deserve to be listened to and you've got to get re-acclimated. So they came to dinner and they sat with me at this dinner and he knew, somehow he knew that I was a little off my feet that night.
I was trying to imagine how to make this new life, and so he told me a really bad joke. And he told it so well and he laughed so hard that I totally got over it and had a great time.
CLINTON: He had that feel about -- you know there's no textbook for that, knowing where somebody else is in their head, picking up the body language. Then, Lonnie -- and Muhammad got me to come here when we had an occasion at the Muhammad Ali Center, and I was trying to be incredibly old, gray haired, elderly statesman, dignified, I got to elevate this guy, so I'm saying all this stuff in very high toned language, and Muhammad sneaks up behind me and puts his fingers up --
CLINTON: Finally after all the years that we have been friends, my enduring image of him is like a little reel in three shots. The boxer I thrilled to as a boy, the man I watched take the last steps to light the Olympic flame when I was president.