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Muhammad Ali's death draws hundreds to his boyhood home in Louisville

All across Muhammad Ali's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, the faithful headed to Sunday church services to mourn the loss of the city's most celebrated son.

Kentucky city will also play host during boxing great's funeral next Friday

Crowds of well-wishers tour the boyhood home of the late Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Ky. on Sunday. Ali died two days earlier at the age of 74. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA)

Andre Watkins shadowboxed Sunday morning outside King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville's west end, not far from the little pink house where Muhammad Ali grew up.

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All across Ali's hometown in Kentucky, the faithful headed to Sunday church services to mourn the loss of the Louisville Lip, the city's most celebrated son.

The city will also be the spot for Ali's funeral next Friday, an event that will be open to all and streamed across the world, after the boxing great died in a Phoenix-area hospital at age 74. 

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Ali, slowed for years by Parkinson's disease, passed away Friday night of "septic shock due to unspecified natural causes," his family said. He had been hospitalized earlier in the week for respiratory problems.

"I thought he couldn't die he was so good," Watkins said.

Emotional service at father's church

Ali's father, Cassius Clay Sr., a painter, was a fixture at King Solomon before his death decades ago. He painted a mural of Jesus' baptism that hangs still behind the pulpit. Jesus and John the Baptist stand waist deep in a lake, and a white dove hovers overhead.

Ali's younger brother, Rahaman Ali, arrived just before the 11:30 a.m. service to join the mourners.

During the two-hour service, Rahaman Ali clapped and swayed to hymns and hugged members of the church. He put his hand to his face, overcome with emotion, as church members paid tribute to his brother.

Rahaman Ali, the younger brother of Muhammad Ali, cries while embraced by assistant pastor Rev. Charles Elliott, III., during a service at King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church where Ali's father worshipped in Louisville, Ky., on Sunday, June 5, 2016. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

The Rev. Wanda McIntyre, who presided over the Sunday service, said what she remembered most about Ali was that famous, dazzling smile. He came with his father to worship occasionally, even after he converted to the Islamic faith, she said. It reminded her that he believed above all in living life with tolerance and an open heart.

"Rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, oceans all have different names, but they all contain water," he once said. "So do religions have different names, and they all contain truth, expressed in different forms and times. It doesn't matter if you're a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family."

When he was healthy enough, he could talk with anybody. He loved children. He'd reach out and touch anybody, because he loved people.- Ali's lifelong friend Victor Bender

On Saturday, Russ Greenleaf had planned to go to his synagogue in Louisville. But the 59-year-old chose instead to attend a memorial service to Ali.

"I thought God wants me to be here," he said. "This is the greater worship, really, to pay tribute to this great man."

He stood in his Jewish prayer shawl and yarmulke to honour a Muslim who devoted his life to fairness for all colours and creeds.

At King Solomon, the Rev. Charles Elliott Jr. said he knew Ali for decades. He recalled once in the 1960s when he was trying to raise money to keep a program running to feed the city's hungry, and Ali cut him a check.

The solace he found Sunday morning, he said, was the Ali's suffering was finally over. He noted that Ali's daughter said The Greatest's heart kept beating a half-hour after the rest of his organs failed.

"He always did something nobody ever did," Elliott said.

Louisville's favourite son

Ali chose his hometown as the place for one of his lasting legacies: the Muhammad Ali Center, which promotes his humanitarian ideals and showcases his remarkable career. Ali and his wife, Lonnie, had multiple residences around the U.S., but always maintained a Louisville home.

The city embraced its favourite son right back. A downtown street bears his name. A banner showcasing his face — and proclaiming him "Louisville's Ali" — towers over motorists near the city's riverfront.

Lifelong friend Victor Bender knew Ali ever since they were boyhood sparring partners. Bender remembered Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — as a dedicated athlete who worked tirelessly to hone his boxing skills.

He also remembered Ali's human touch and his willingness to reach out to others.

Boxing gloves and a message sit among flowers at a makeshift memorial to Muhammad Ali at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky. on Saturday, June 4, 2016. Ali died Friday at age 74. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

"Only health changed him," Bender said in a September 2014 interview. "When he was healthy enough, he could talk with anybody. He loved children. He'd reach out and touch anybody, because he loved people.

"Sometimes his handlers would say, 'Look, we've got to go. We've got to meet the schedule.' And he'd say, 'The schedule will have to wait."'

Ruby Hyde remembered the heavyweight champ cruising into her neighbourhood in a Cadillac with the top down. "All the kids jumped in and he rode them around the block," she remembered.

Ali's boyhood home — a small, single-story frame house — still stands in the working-class neighbourhood where he grew up. The pastel pink home on Grand Avenue was renovated by its current owners and opened for Ali's fans to get a glimpse into his life before the world came to know him.

How the boxing great was born

Ali's storybook boxing career — highlighted by epic bouts with Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston — began with a theft.  

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His bicycle was stolen when he was 12. Wanting to report the crime, the shaken boy was introduced to Joe Martin, a police officer who doubled as a boxing coach at a local gym. Ali told Martin he wanted to whip the culprit. The thief was never found, nor was the bike, but soon the feisty Ali was a regular in Martin's gym.

Ali developed into a top amateur boxer. His early workouts included racing a school bus along the streets of Louisville, said Shirlee Smith, his classmate at Louisville Central High School.

"Every time the bus would stop to pick up kids, he would pass us up," she recalled. "Then we'd pass him up. Everybody on the bus would be laughing and teasing him. He was training at that time, and we were just having fun. But he was focused on what he wanted."

In this May 25, 1965 file photo, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali does a bit of heavy clowning as challenger Sonny Liston (not shown) walks past ahead of their title fight in Lewiston, Maine. (Associated Press)

Ali's boyhood neighbour, Lawrence Montgomery Sr., said he saw early glimpses of the bravado that earned Ali the "Louisville Lip" nickname.

"He told me then that he was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world, and I didn't believe him," Montgomery said. "I told him, 'Man, you better get that out of your mind.' But he succeeded. He followed through."

Not long after graduating from high school, Ali won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Ali announced his conversion to the Muslim faith soon after upsetting Liston in 1964 to win the heavyweight crown for the first time. Ali moved away in the early 1960s but never lost contact with Louisville.

The Ali Center includes exhibits recalling the turbulent 1960s that Ali came to personify. Ali was refused service at a Louisville restaurant after he returned home as an Olympic gold medal winner. Other exhibits recall Ali's role as a civil rights supporter and opponent of the Vietnam War.

Louisvillians embraced him as their own again as they mourned his passing. They flocked to the Ali Center and to his boyhood home along with out-of-town visitors paying their respects.

Andrew Hale took his 3-year-old daughter, Chloe, to the Ali Center on Sunday to explain to her who the boxing great was.

"He was strong, courageous, and I hope I can be like that one day and just show love to my daughter like he showed his," he said. "She asked me where he is and I said he was in heaven."

Andrew Hale holds his daughter, Chloe, explaining to her who Muhammad Ali was as they visit a makeshift memorial at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

With files from CBC News

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