It was a moving display of family unity: nine children with four women gathered around the bedside of dying Muhammad Ali.
They had rushed from all corners of the US, said his spokesman, to share the final moments of a man whose chaotic family life had always been subsumed under his glorious public one.
‘We all tried to stay strong and whispered in his ear, “You can go now. We will be OK. We love you. You can go back to God now”,’ said his daughter Hana.
‘All of us were hugging and kissing him, holding his hands, chanting the Islamic prayer.’
Ali’s spokesman Bob Gunnell said he was deeply moved by the scene. ‘It was a wonderful thing to witness. A lot of love and every member of his family was there,’ he said.
‘There was a lot of crying … but more important they did it with dignity and kindness, as Muhammad lived his life.’
This show of solidarity in grief is undoubtedly one that Ali’s family will maintain – at least until after his funeral.
An airplane carrying the boxing great’s body arrived from Arizona, where he died, on Sunday afternoon in his hometown of Louisville ahead of a public funeral procession and service expected to draw huge crowds in honor of ‘The Greatest’ on Friday.
The private plane landed at Louisville International Airport around 4.30pm, WLKY reports. Gunnell says Ali was accompanied by his wife, Lonnie, and other family members and friends. He says the body was taken to a local funeral home.
Police reportedly escorted the casket, which was wrapped in a black cloth bearing Arabic scripture in gold on it, from the airport to the funeral home.
The three-time heavyweight champion and outspoken civil rights activist died on Friday night at age 74 after health problems complicated by a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
‘Our hearts are literally hurting. But we are happy daddy is free now,’ one of Ali’s nine children, daughter Hana, wrote on Twitter.
After the funeral there are fears that the gloves will be off in the battle over the boxer’s $80million (£55million) fortune and, perhaps equally importantly, who guides the legacy of such a legend.
For both his brother Rahman and Muhammad Ali Jr, the boxer’s sole biological son, have accused others in his extended family of being anything but ‘humanitarian’ towards them, cruelly leaving them in varying degrees of financial hardship as Ali and his controlling fourth wife, Lonnie, lived in the lap of luxury.
Unemployed Ali Jr, 44, recently revealed he hadn’t spoken to his father for two years, and that his attempts to contact him were routinely blocked.
Indeed, he even went so far as to claim that he had stopped caring what happened to Ali. And it’s not difficult to see why.
For the past decade, he has been living in a miserable garret in Chicago’s crime-ridden South Side, relying on charity handouts to feed and clothe him, his wife Shaakira, and their two children, aged seven and eight. Their grotty flat is theirs only through the charity of Shaakira’s family, who own it.
Ali Jr, the son of Ali’s second wife, Khalilah, says he has been almost entirely cut off from his father since 2004. He blames Lonnie, who married Ali in 1986, and not only nursed him through his long decline but also – with power of attorney over his money – sorted out his chaotic financial affairs.
The official cause of Ali’s death was septic shock due to unspecified natural causes.
Gunnell said Ali had sought medical attention for a cough, but his condition rapidly deteriorated. He was admitted to a hospital in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, where he had lived for several years with his wife Lonnie.
In Louisville, the late boxing legend’s life was celebrated at a memorial service at the church where their father was a longtime member on Sunday.
His younger brother Rahman Ali took center stage at the two-hour service at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church, sitting in a front-row pew with his wife, Caroline.
During the service, assistant pastor Charles Elliott III asked the congregation to stand to honor Muhammad Ali. In his tribute, Elliott said ‘there is no great man that has done more for this city than Muhammad Ali.’
The church is not far from the little pink house in Louisville’s west end where the Ali brothers grew up. It also features a painting by Ali’s father, Cassius Clay Sr.
And it was one of several emotional remembrances Sunday as the city joined together to mourn its most celebrated son, called ‘the Louisville Lip’. Later on Sunday, interfaith services were planned at Louisville’s Islamic Center, which invited citizens to ‘join hands in unity to celebrate the life’ of Ali.
On Friday, politicians, celebrities and fans from around the globe are expected for a memorial service that Ali planned himself with the intent of making it open to all.
After a small family funeral on Thursday, Ali’s coffin will be transported Friday through the streets of Louisville, before a private burial at Cave Hill Cemetery and the public interfaith memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center.
The procession has been organized to ‘allow anyone that is there from the world to say goodbye,’ family spokesman Bob Gunnell told reporters.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the city is ready for a massive celebration to honor its most famous son.
Ali wed his first wife, Chicago cocktail waitress Sonji Roy, in 1964 but they divorced within 17 months without producing any children.
The marriage reportedly ended because she objected to the constraints of being a Muslim wife.
Next came Belinda Boyd, who had caught Ali’s wandering eye when she was 14 and working in a Kentucky bakery. They married in 1967, when she was 17 and he 27.
She dutifully changed her name to Khalilah Ali and had three daughters – Maryum and twins Jamillah and Rasheda – and the son Ali had long craved.
During the tumultuous marriage, Ali had numerous affairs, two of which led to the birth of another two daughters. In 1975, Ali strayed again, beginning a relationship with Veronica Porsche who had worked as a glamorous ‘poster girl’ to spice up his fight against Joe Frazier.
Once, Khalilah caught them in bed together in a hotel and she attacked him so ferociously she drew blood.
After Ali married Veronica, Khalilah was quickly written out of his life and reduced to very modest circumstances. Today, she works as a hospital canteen waitress in Florida.
Ali’s marriage to Veroncia produced two more daughters, Hana and Laila, but by 1986 she, too, had been swept aside.
That year, as Parkinson’s Disease began to take hold, he married wife number four, Lonnie Williams, who had been a childhood neighbour, albeit 16 years his junior.
Inevitably, Ali’s life was complicated by claims he fathered other children. They include Kiiursti Mensah Ali, now 35, whose mother claims she had a 20-year affair with the boxer which started when she was 17.
Meanwhile Lonnie and Ali adopted a baby boy, Asaad, and she became Ali’s full-time carer. But her motives for such self-sacrifice remain hotly debated within the family.
Whereas some are adamant that Lonnie rescued Ali, others say she poisoned his relationships with the rest of his family, many of whom were seen as spongers leeching money off him. Ali Jr, as well as the boxer’s brother, are seen in this category.
For his part, Ali Jr says his estrangement from his father happened 12 years ago when he asked him for a signed pair of boxing gloves. He claims Lonnie believed he wanted the memento only so he could sell it and therefore refused to let him see his dad.
He also claims she did not allow his father to attend the funeral of Ali Jr’s baby daughter.
In recent years, Ali Jr says that when he phoned his father, his calls would either not be answered or he would be told his father was busy. Although he’s in touch with his sisters, they never discussed their father, he said. Ali Jr claims they are also angry at Lonnie but are too scared to say anything.
He added: ‘I used to say that I felt hurt not having my daddy in my life and it’s still not a good feeling. In reality, it’s like not having one. My father can’t do a thing for me.’ Rahman Ali also blames Lonnie for his reduced circumstances.
Aged 72, the ex-boxer married six times and was a member of his brother’s entourage.
In return, Ali is said to have helped him with alimony payments to some of these ex-wives and allowed him to move into a house he bought for their mother after she passed away.
Yet this largesse ended when Lonnie took over the purse strings, forcing Rahman into a modest Louisville flat.
Rahman says he once confronted Ali about the woman he’s called a ‘gold digger’ and ‘an evil b****’. He claims Ali ‘just looked at me with his famous look’, put a finger over his mouth and went ‘Ssshhh’.
With family members expecting Lonnie to be a co-executor of the estate, Rahman has reportedly vowed to fight ‘tooth and nail’ in court to ensure he and all Ali’s children receive a share – which is now likely to soar in value.
The marginalised brother and son aren’t the only enemies of Lonnie. Charlotte Waddell, the boxer’s cousin, claimed two years ago that Lonnie ‘controls everything’, saying: ‘I can’t stand to be around her. It wouldn’t take me two seconds to spit in her face.’
How tragically ironic that the greatest fighter the world has ever known has left an extended family who seem hell-bent on plunging into bitter feuding.
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