By Peter Gleason

A private, Islamic funeral prayer program for Muhammad Ali was held yesterday in Louisville, and thousands from around the world will converge on the KFC Yum Center today to bid adieu to one of the greatest boxers who ever lived and, more important, the most influential athlete of all time.

muhammadBillboards around the city bear Ali’s likeness with his moniker, “The Greatest,” and the years he lived (1942-2016). The man who never got an Olympic celebration in his hometown because of the politics of the day will be celebrated today.

“I’m here to say goodbye to my friend. To me, he was young — 74 years old,” former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes told USA TODAY Sports by phone shortly after arriving in Louisville. “He wasn’t ready, but God has a plan. He’s the best of planners. It’s hard for me to see this man go, but I had to come here to say bye to him.”

“The Easton Assassin” trained and sparred with Ali from 1971 to ’75. And when Ali ended his abbreviated retirement, it was Holmes who easily defeated his friend in a 1980 title bout.

clayHolmes last saw Ali in October, when he and fellow Ali opponent George Foreman visited Louisville for an event honoring Ali after Sports Illustrated named its Legacy Award after him. Both men were chosen by Ali to serve as honorary pallbearers.

Holmes knew then that Ali was in bad shape. Foreman tried to speak with Ali, but Ali didn’t respond. Holmes, too, tried to communicate with Ali, but efforts were futile.

“I knew it was a matter of time, but I didn’t want to believe it,” he said. “My wife woke up to tell me the news, but I said, ‘It can’t be.’ But I had to face reality. And then the newspapers started calling me. They hadn’t given me time to think about everything.”

Public tickets for Friday’s proceedings in the 22,000-seat arena went quickly, with people even scalping the free tickets on the secondary market.

Bob Arum, who promoted Ali, quickly left Thursday’s news conference ahead of a Saturday HBO fight Top Rank is holding at Madison Square Garden to catch a flight to Kentucky.

Don King, who promoted the legendary fights dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle,” in which Ali knocked out Foreman in Africa, and “The Thrilla in Manila,” in which Ali beat Joe Frazier by technical knockout, arrived in Louisville on Wednesday but was in good spirits.

“It’s a celebration, man,” King told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday after the program he attended. “I was blessed to be a part of his life and a guy who was a fighter for the people and who became the people’s champion. He will never die. His spirit will live forever.”

ESPN will begin coverage of the proceedings at 9 a.m. ET, and Jeremy Schaap will serve as co-host with Hannah Storm. Schaap’s father, Dick, the late sportswriter and broadcaster, had a good relationship with Ali, and the champ was often at their home.

Ali was at Dick Schaap’s 70th birthday party and was seen at events such as the golf tournament Schaap hosted.

“You get the sense the city is preparing for this big sendoff,” Jeremy Schaap told USA TODAY Sports between production meetings. “I think it’s going to be very moving. I think there’s a lot of real emotion there. For me, he’s somebody that was always a presence in some way in my life.

“He was silenced too young, and he died too young. Seventy-four is young these days. You think about what he did, he affected so many people from 1964 to 1980, and the symbol that he became later on in life. A symbol of man’s capacity for understanding, for brotherhood — it’s very powerful. I think in that respect Ali is easily the most significant figure in the landscape of sports globally over the 20th century and you can probably make the case forever.”

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