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Muhammad Ali Scripted His Own Funeral Plans in 'The Book'

The memorials and funeral service in which the world will say goodbye to Muhammad Ali were all his idea.
Image: A memorial to honor Muhammad Ali, the former world heavyweight boxing champion after he died at the age of 74 on Friday at the Louisville Islamic Center in Louisville
A memorial to honor Muhammad Ali at the Louisville Islamic Center.JOHN SOMMERS II / Reuters

The memorials and funeral service in which the world will say goodbye to Muhammad Ali were all his idea.

Ali scripted it all.

With help from his closest friends and family, the boxing legend years ago began assembling a document they called "The Book," participants told The Associated Press.

It included all the events that will unfold in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, this week: a memorial service in an arena, an Islamic-based funeral that includes representatives from multiple religions, and opportunities for his fans and other ordinary people to watch.

Related: Packed Mosque Welcomes Muhammad Ali Home to Louisville, Kentucky

The result was a detailed plan, about 2 inches thick, that Ali approved and signed in 2010, family spokesman Bob Gunnell said. Revisions continued until just days before Ali died Friday in an Arizona hospital with his family by his side.

"The message that we'll be sending out is not our message — this was really designed by The Champ himself," one member of that inner circle, Islamic studies scholar Timothy Gianotti, told the AP. "The love and the reverence and the inclusivity that we're going to experience over the coming days is really a reflection of his message to the people of planet Earth."

Gunnell said the three-time heavyweight champion was never downcast during the process. He told one planning meeting,"It's OK. We're here to do the job the way I want it. It's fine," Gunnell said.

Some proposals were scrapped, including having Ali's body lie in repose at the Muhammad Ali Center, Gunnell said. His wife, Lonnie, worried it would interrupt the center's operations.

Instead, Ali added a slow procession through the streets of the city, past the museum built in his honor, along the boulevard named after him and through the neighborhood where he grew up and learned to box. That will happen Friday morning, before the funeral at the KFC Yum! arena.

Related: Muhammad Ali, 'The Greatest of All Time,' Dead at 74

"It's been a really bittersweet time for our city," Mayor Greg Fischer said. "We've all been dreading the passing of The Champ, but at the same time we knew ultimately it would come. It was selfish for us to think that we could hold on to him forever. Our job now, as a city, is to send him off with the class and dignity and respect that he deserves."

The days of events will draw celebrities, athletes and heads of state to Louisville. A Jenazah, a traditional Muslim funeral, will be held at Freedom Hall at noon Thursday, open to all. At the Friday funeral, pallbearers will include actor Will Smith, former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, and several relatives.

Former President Bill Clinton, journalist Bryant Gumbel and comedian Billy Crystal will all speak at the funeral, along with family members, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan and an array of clergy.

They will include Rabbi Michael Lerner of Berkeley, California, who met Ali in the 1960s as kindred opponents of the Vietnam War. They never met again. But an Ali represenative called after the boxer's death and told him Ali admired the rabbi's work as an author and editor of the Jewish progressive magazine Tikkun.

"I didn't know that he continued to follow my work; I certainly followed him, what he was doing and the courage he did it with," Lerner told the AP. "I am extremely honored and extremely humbled."

Ali's burial will be in Cave Hill Cemetery, where many of the city's most prominent residents are also interred.

His gravesite will be modest, in adherence to Muslim tradition, his attorney, Ron Tweel said.