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Last goodbye to Muhammad Ali culminates with emotional memorial service

Procession and Service for Ali, The Greatest

Religious and political leaders of many stripes joined the sports world and tens of thousands of ordinary mourners on Friday to bid farewell to Muhammad Ali, the boxing champion who jolted America with his showmanship and won worldwide admiration as a man of principle.

Ali, a once-controversial convert to Islam who lost three prime years of his boxing career for refusing U.S. military service during the Vietnam War, died a week ago at age 74 as one of the most respected men in the United States.

Fans chanting "Ali!" and throwing flowers lined the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, for a funeral procession. Ali's hearse snaked through the city, pausing for a huge crowed outside his boyhood home, en route to a cemetery for a private burial beneath a headstone reading simply "Ali."

SEE MORE: Celebrities and athletes mourn the boxing legend

City officials estimated 100,000 people came out to honor Ali, many traveling from across the country and across the world. Some tossed flowers atop the hearse carrying his casket as part of an 18-car procession over 23 miles (37 km) in a memorial unlike any other in recent U.S. history.

After Ali's body was put to rest, former President Bill Clinton and celebrities such as Billy Crystal, Will Smith and Mike Tyson were among those gathered at a 20,000-seat sports arena for an interfaith memorial service that began with Muslim prayers.

The Reverend Kevin W. Cosby, a pastor at a Louisville church, likened Ali to other ground-breaking black athletes who advanced civil rights such as baseball player Jackie Robinson, boxer Joe Louis and track star Jessie Owens.

CELEBRATING 'THE GREATEST':

18 PHOTOS
Muhammad Ali's funeral procession through Louisville
See Gallery
Last goodbye to Muhammad Ali culminates with emotional memorial service
A mourner throws a rose onto the hearse carrying the body of the late Muhammad Ali as it enters Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. June 10, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II
LOUISVILLE, KY - JUNE 10: Police wait the hearse carrying the body of Muhammed Ali to pass by his childhood home on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. The funeral possession wound through Louisville, preceding a memorial service and giving the public an opportunity to honor the four-time world heavyweight boxing champion, who died on June 3 at age 74. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - JUNE 10: People wait along the childhood street of Muhammed Ali for his funeral procession to pass by on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. The procession preceded a memorial service, giving the public an opportunity to honor the four-time world heavyweight boxing champion. Ali died on June 3 at age 74. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - JUNE 10: People get their picture taken in front of Muhammad Ali's childhood home on Grand Avenue on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. The funeral procession for Ali will be traveling over 20 miles on a designated route throughout Louisville. The four-time world heavyweight boxing champion died on June 3 at age 74. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - JUNE 10: Friends and family of Muhammad Ali shake hands with people in the crowd lining Grand Avenue as the funeral procession motorcade drives in front Ali's childhood home on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. The funeral procession for Ali was traveling over 20 miles on a designated route throughout Louisville on the way to Cave Hill Cemetery. The four-time world heavyweight boxing champion died on June 3 at age 74. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - JUNE 10: Brown Rawls (man middle) and his family have their photo taken in front of a Muhammad Ali back drop in the front yard of house down the street from his childhood home on Grand Avenue on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. The funeral procession for Ali will be traveling over 20 miles on a designated route throughout Louisville. The four-time world heavyweight boxing champion died on June 3 at age 74. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images)
Brandon Liggons, 2, (L) holds an image of Muhammad Ali during the funeral procession for the three-time heavyweight boxing champion in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
LOUISVILLE, KY - JUNE 10: People stand in front of Muhammad Ali's childhood home on Grand Avenue on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. The funeral procession for Ali will be traveling over 20 miles on a designated route throughout Louisville. The four-time world heavyweight boxing champion died on June 3 at age 74. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images)
Jerry Martin walks his horse, Rekoa, fashioned as a riderless horse, outside boxing legend Muhammad Ali's childhood home where mourners wait to pay their respects during a funeral procession on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. Thousands of people from near and far were expected to line the streets of Muhammad Ali's hometown Louisville on Friday to say goodbye to the boxing legend and civil rights hero, who mesmerized the world with his dazzling skills. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks down the street with a huge painting of boxing legend Muhammad Ali outside his childhood home where mourners wait to pay their respects to a funeral procession on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. Thousands of people from near and far were expected to line the streets of Muhammad Ali's hometown Louisville on Friday to say goodbye to the boxing legend and civil rights hero, who mesmerized the world with his dazzling skills. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
People sit in lawn chairs outside boxing legend Muhammad Ali's childhood home where mourners wait to pay their respects during a funeral procession on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. Thousands of people from near and far were expected to line the streets of Muhammad Ali's hometown Louisville on Friday to say goodbye to the boxing legend and civil rights hero, who mesmerized the world with his dazzling skills. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman places flower peddles along the entrance to Cave Hill Cemetery for the funeral procession for boxing legend Muhammad Ali on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali will be laid to rest Friday, the culmination of a two-day farewell for the beloved boxing legend and civil rights hero who electrified crowds the world over. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Two men hold up placards reading 'Me, We', a quote by boxing legend Muhammad Ali as they wait outside his childhood home with other mourners to pay their respects during a funeral procession on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. Thousands of people from near and far were expected to line the streets of Muhammad Ali's hometown Louisville on Friday to say goodbye to the boxing legend and civil rights hero, who mesmerized the world with his dazzling skills. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
The coffin bearing the remains of Muhammad Ali is loaded into a hearse at the A D Porter & Sons funeral home during the funeral procession for the three-time heavyweight boxing champion in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The hearse carrying the remains of Muhammad Ali leaves the A D Porter & Sons funeral home during the funeral procession for the three-time heavyweight boxing champion in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
People wait to view a procession for boxing legend Muhammad Ali pass on the way to Cave Hill Cemetery June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. Thousands of people from near and far were expected to line the streets of Muhammad Ali's hometown Louisville on Friday to say goodbye to the boxing legend and civil rights hero, who mesmerized the world with his dazzling skills. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Thirteen-year-old Malik Parker shadow boxes outside boxing legend Muhammad Ali's childhood home where mourners wait to pay their respects during a funeral procession on June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. Thousands of people from near and far were expected to line the streets of Muhammad Ali's hometown Louisville on Friday to say goodbye to the boxing legend and civil rights hero, who mesmerized the world with his dazzling skills. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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"Before James Brown said, 'I'm black and I'm proud,' Muhammad Ali said, 'I'm black and I'm pretty,'" Cosby told a crowd the arena, referring to the 1960s R&B singer. "He dared to love black people at a time when black people had a problem loving themselves."

Earlier on a hot day, some 1,500 people gathered outside Ali's boyhood home in a traditionally African-American section of town. As the hearse arrived, police standing shoulder-to-shoulder cleared a path, much like a fighter's entourage clears his way to the ring.

The hearse stopped at the pink house as the people, many of whom waited in the sun for more than three hours, chanted his name.

"It was important for me to be here," said Matt Alexander, 63, who traveled from Florida. "I cried like a baby when I heard he'd died. I just didn't want to believe it because I wanted him to live forever."

Rickey Martin, 55, compared him to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as a towering figure of the 20th century.

"Ali and MLK instilled in our generation that you didn't just have to sit back and do as you were told," Martin said. "You could go to school, you get a good job. In the years after segregation ... he was an inspiration to all of us."

MUHAMMAD ALI THROUGH THE YEARS:

4 PHOTOS
Muhammad Ali through the years
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Last goodbye to Muhammad Ali culminates with emotional memorial service
American boxer and sometime actor Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) as Eric Sevareid interviews him during an episode of the CBS Evening News, New York, March 24, 1964. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 2,1980: Muhammad Ali (L) throws a punch against Larry Holmes during the fight at Caesars Palace, on October 2,1980 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Larry Holmes won the WBC heavyweight title by a RTD 10. (Photo by: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)
JUL 14 1981; Ali, Muhammad (Boxer) - Ind.; (Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
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Dipo Akabashorun, 51, came from Lagos, Nigeria to see off Ali. "We claim him, too, as our native son. We claim him too as a Lagotian," he said.

Some foreign dignitaries attended but Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who went to a Muslim funeral for Ali on Thursday, cut short his visit to Louisville and did not take part in Friday's event as planned.

Remembering Muhammad Ali

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