DEVASTATED fans across the globe last night paid emotional tributes to their hero Muhammad Ali, The Sun reports. In the UK, there was disbelief and tears at London’s O2 where crowds flocked to see his memorabilia.
And there was an outpouring of grief in Louisville, Kentucky — the home town that led to him becoming known as the Louisville Lip because of his poetic quips on TV. The tears also flowed in Phoenix, Arizona, outside the American hospital where he passed away.
In London, fight robes, press cuttings, clothing and championship belts lined the halls of the O2’s I Am The Greatest exhibition.
Among the teary-eyed throngs was Winston Dottin, 70, from South London, who had brought his daughter and grandchildren to pay homage to the colossus he shook hands with in London in 1974.
He said: “He was giving a talk at the Victoria Theatre after he beat George Foreman. I approached him at the end to shake his hand. “I told him I was a big fan and he thanked me. I still have a lump in my throat remembering it.
“I can’t believe he’s gone.” Among the memorabilia is a £1million split glove worn by Ali when he fought Henry Cooper at Wembley Stadium in 1963.
Cooper put Ali, then Cassius Clay, on the canvas with a left hook. But at the end of the round Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee cut his glove out of sight of the ref, then bought time for his fighter by insisting it needed repairing.
Cooper’s son Henry Junior, 55, said yesterday: “Dad always had a huge admiration for him like most people did and they enjoyed each other’s company.”
A film of Ali training featured one of his poetic quotes: “Just last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
Further down the O2 hall were pictures of the star as a boy. Kyra Williams, 47, from Brockley, South East London, said: “He had such courage in his career and when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“He was beyond a boxer. He was outspoken on civil rights and the fact he didn’t go to Vietnam and gave up his belts shows he was willing to give up everything for others, for his people.” The vast collection was put together by Trevor Beattie, from Birmingham. The film producer and lifelong Ali fan began collecting memorabilia from the age of 12 and steadily grew the massive collection. He said: “There’s no value on it all. It’s priceless because I’ll never sell it.”
With a huge bronze statue of Ali towering overhead, Trevor recalled the “most extraordinary” night of his life when sitting down with him for dinner in London in 1999.
The pair talked for three hours and Trevor recalled: “He was quieter than his ring and media persona, He was very warm. He’s like a big kid really and very cheeky.”
One of Trevor’s most memorable moments from the dinner was when he asked the boxer: “Can you pass me the salt please, champ?” With a twinkle in his eye, Ali cheekily responded: “Did you just call me a tramp?”
Ticket sales to the exhibition rocketed after news of his death broke overnight and the event is now being primed to go global. Exhibition organiser Nic Wastell said: “We’d been getting about three to four hundred people a day but now we’re preparing for more than 2,000 a day.”
Streams of fans left heartfelt messages in books of condolences, which will be handed to Ali’s wife Lonnie in August. One note simply read: “The Greatest of all time. RIP.” Mourners left flowers outside the Scottsdale Healthcare Hospital, where Ali died, in Phoenix.
And the tributes continued at a memorial service in Louisville, where he took up boxing as a 12-year-old. Yesterday a makeshift shrine grew outside the Muhammad Ali Center museum.
Ruby Hyde arrived clutching an old black and white photograph of a young Ali. She said she was a “water girl” during his amateur fights as a teenager in Louisville, hydrating the boxers between bouts.
Ruby said: “When he used to dance around the stage and fight the girls would be jumping up and down and clapping their hands. The other boxer would think we were flirting with him.”
Years later, he returned as a heavyweight champion, driving a Cadillac with the top down. Ruby said: “All the kids jumped in and he rode them around the block.”
Louisville mayor Greg Fischer said: “There can only be one Muhammad Ali but his journey to global icon is a reminder there are young people with the potential for greatness in the houses and neighbourhoods all over our city, our nation, our world.”
Fans will give him send-off
THE public will be invited to join Ali’s funeral procession through the streets of his home town Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday, it emerged last night. Eulogies will be delivered by former US president Bill Clinton and actor Billy Crystal.
Ali’s spokesman Bob Gunnell revealed at a press conference that he died at 4.10am UK time yesterday from septic shock due to unspecified natural causes but “did not suffer”.
He said the boxing superstar was taken to hospital on Monday — three days earlier than first reported — but was in a “fair condition” when admitted. Mr Gunnell said Ali’s body would be returned to Louisville from Arizona, where he died, within the next two days.
After the private family ceremony on Thursday, fans will get the chance to join his procession to a venue in the city the following afternoon in plans which had been devised by Ali himself.
His body will then be taken through the streets to a cemetery for a private interment.
Mr Clinton had watched as Ali lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Games, under his presidency. And he awarded him with the Presidential Citizen’s Medal at the White House.
The champ had been friends with Crystal since they met in 1974, with Ali calling him his “little brother”.
The spokesman also read out a statement from Ali’s family which said: “Muhammad Ali was truly the people’s champion and a celebration will reflect people of all races, religions and backgrounds.”
He planned a return to UK
ALI cherished his special relationship with the UK and was planning to return within weeks. After refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, he became a pariah in the US, but remained loved here.
He was desperate to come back one last time to attend an exhibition titled I Am the Greatest, which showcased his life. Yet he was forced to cancel the trip to London’s O2 Arena after falling ill.
Ali’s fondness for the UK grew during his career as he clashed with US politicians. He once said: “England is heaven compared to America. I asked a police officer here, ‘Where’s your pistol?’ He said, ‘Man, we don’t need that here’.
“You are all so civilised and so clean. You all practise what my people in America preach.” On one remarkable visit, the fighter crossed the Atlantic to help a cash-strapped boxing club after a plea from a painter and decorator. Amateur boxer Johnny Walker lured him to South Shields in July 1977.
Thousands jostled for a glimpse during a four-day tour which included sparring sessions and visits to schools and a mosque. The trip, which raised funds for the National Association of Boys Clubs and gyms, became part of North East folklore.