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June 11, 2016

Bernard Hopkins: Muhammad Ali’s funeral is a day I’ll never forget

Boxing Muhammad Ali
061016_hopkins1_MC Malik Chambers/for PhillyVoice

Bernard Hopkins and Will Smith at Friday's Muhammad Ali memorial in Louisville.


As told to Joseph Santoliquito

LOUISVILLE, KY — I was intending to go to Louisville, Kentucky, for Muhammad Ali’s funeral anyway, but when I got the call from his daughter Laila, it was a real honor. It came a little unexpected. Laila asked me, on behalf of the Ali family, to be there as one of boxing’s representatives, and you have to understand, I was a poor kid raised in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. I’m someone who lost his first professional fight, who was incarcerated and here I’m being requested by the family of the king of boxing to be there with former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Senators, congressmen, world-renowned famous people — and me.

You can’t receive a higher compliment than that.

Myself and Malik (Chambers, Hopkins’ security man) flew down Friday morning, the day of the funeral. The family had it arranged where they picked us up at the airport and took us to our hotel. Then, we met everyone at the Muhammad Ali Museum. The place was like Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, three to four floors all filled with memories, pictures – everything Ali.

It was one of the most unique experiences of my life. I didn’t want any red-carpet treatment, but they gave it to me anyway. We had CIA people there, FBI people, all kinds of top-level security and some really heavyweight people like princes and presidents from foreign countries, who had their own security teams. 

How powerful is the federal government? They have all of the power to chase you down and screw your life with all of the money in the world. What did Ali tell them? He told them to go (expletive) themselves! That’s real power.

It was like a funeral for a head of state.

They moved us all around in these SUV limos.

We saw the casket and they made sure Ali was buried in the strict Islamic way. The first ceremony was very private.

What really surprised me was all of these people, from Will Smith, to U.S. Senators and congressmen, all of these people who I didn’t know really knew me came up and introduced themselves. They said how much I reminded them of Ali.

I believe that. We’re both outspoken. We were both misunderstood at times early in our careers and fans came around to like us later. I’m still not used to a lot of people liking me. We both had to reinvent our styles in the ring. Ali won with boxing and quickness early in his career, and I was slugging people out early in his career. Ali won with defense and will power in the second half of his career and I’ve learned to use more defense.

People didn’t understand Ali and they understand him now.

How powerful is the federal government? They have all of the power to chase you down and screw your life with all of the money in the world. What did Ali tell them? He told them to go (expletive) themselves!

That’s real power.

Malik Chambers/for PhillyVoice

Bernard Hopkins and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the Muhammad Ali memorial.


Ali’s funeral was a challenge. I think anyone that saw it, like today’s superstar athletes, was challenged to speak up. In the end, it’s not about how much money you make, or how many championships you win, or how many girls you bang, it’s the impact you have on the world and the impact that you leave. That’s what I learned about Ali’s funeral on Friday. He left an impact that will be forever lasting. It’s like a relay race that never ends. Ali’s now handed the baton to us.

So we landed on Friday, and they told us what the program was and what they wanted me to do. You couldn’t just come and go. They handed everyone these butterfly passes on pin-on medals, from Ali’s phrase, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” You had a small butterfly pass and a large butterfly pass for VIPs. They gave me both.

We started at the Ali Museum and all of the Ali family was there. His kids, his grandchildren and great grandchildren. This one kid came up to me, he was 6-foot-4, 6-5, about 215 pounds and looked like Ali. It was one of his grandsons. We exchanged information and he told me how he’s followed my career and he hoped this wasn’t the last time we spoke.

The message throughout the whole day was that anyone could be Ali. From the time I got there, to the time they laid him in the ground, to the ceremony that they had at the KFC (Yum! Center).

I’m not an emotional person and I get accused of being emotional. It wasn’t emotional for me at all, because emotions control your feelings. I feel very deeply about Ali. In Islam, our feelings are not like anyone’s feelings that I know of. In Islam, you get buried on the right side facing Mecca, the way the Koran says. You’re literally laid on the right side, in the right direction.

Ali’s mission is accomplished. It’s up to us to keep Ali’s legacy going. I learned that you never give up and to continue speaking my mind. If you can’t be who you are, you’ll never be happy anyway.

We left the procession and we went to the ceremony at KFC and nothing went as scheduled. But it was Ali. It didn’t matter. Anything scheduled from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. went past the normal time. There were a lot of people there. They told us there were over 100,000, more than they get for the Kentucky Derby. You couldn’t move. Anyone associated with boxing was immediately mobbed. You try and accommodate as many people as you can with the cell phone pictures and autographs, but the bottom line is we were there for Ali and his family.

One thing I was happy about is that they didn’t ask me to speak at the main ceremony. They just asked me to be an ambassador to boxing. There were a lot of powerful things said up there during that ceremony. Rabbi Michael Lerner had the whole place going. Each word he said was powerful. Then when he left, he just left. He didn’t go back to his seat. All of these people wanted to meet him, including me. In a way, I’m happy I didn’t. I wouldn’t have ever left Louisville. I would still be there talking to him.

Billy Crystal’s speech was powerful, too. You’re there and you soak in every word. I still remember what he said, that Ali taught that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls. How was I going to compete against that?

I got a chance to meet Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Will Smith and President Bill Clinton. Maybe this was a reflection on Ali and what Ali meant, I ended the day having dinner and breaking bread with Don King, Lou DiBella, guys that I had some beefs with in the past. We sat and spoke and laughed. We had a great time. Believe it or not, all of these boxing people, all at the same table together not killing each other.

Ali’s mission is accomplished. It’s up to us to keep Ali’s legacy going. I learned that you never give up and to continue speaking my mind. If you can’t be who you are, you’ll never be happy anyway.

I got my morning run in on Saturday and I left. But Ali’s funeral is a day I’ll never forget.


Follow Joseph Santoliquito on Twitter @JSantoliquito