We’ve become used to world-famous athletes and Hollywood celebrities hanging out together, but the friendship between Muhammad Ali and Billy Crystal was different than the rest.
How often would you expect to find the most recognized Muslim in the world hanging on with a Jewish comedian who does a dead-on impersonation of him?
June 3 marks the anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s death
Muhammad Ali was a once-in-a-generation athlete who truly earned his nickname of “The Greatest” for his prowess in the boxing ring. But Ali was much more than a fighter. He brought showmanship to the sport, turning many of his bouts into spectacles that could rival Super Bowls and the Olympics. His fights are remembered for catchy names like “Thrilla in Manila” and “The Rumble in the Jungle.”
Ali won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics and captured the world heavyweight championship in 1984 at the age of 22. He would hold that crown three times and earn recognition from The Ring magazine as the fighter of the year on six occasions.
He retired from the ring in 1981 and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s shortly afterward. Ali was 74 when he died on June 3, 2016.
Billy Crystal highlights the memorial service
Muhammad Ali’s death was followed on June 9 by services in his hometown of Louisville at Freedom Hall. One day later, his funeral procession passed through city streets and his body was interred during a private ceremony.
That day’s memorial service took place at a packed KFC Yum! Center, where the pallbearers included actor Will Smith and boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Celebrities in attendance included retired NBA great Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, soccer star David Beckham, Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Jim Brown, and former president Bill Clinton.
Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the service was the heartfelt eulogy by Billy Crystal, his longtime friend. Crystal mixed humorous recollections about their time together with laudatory words about Ali’s contributions to sports and society. Those in attendance reacted with laughter and applause as he eloquently weaved stories together in a 13-minute tribute to one of the most quotable athletes ever.
Crystal recounted being introduced to Ali when the then-struggling comedian was invited to perform a three-minute skit in which he imitated the boxer and sportscaster Howard Cosell at an awards dinner honoring Ali.
“From now on, I want to be known as Izzy Yitzkowitz. I’m an Orthodox Jew. Hai-am the greatest of all time,” Crystal said, mimicking Ali’s voice and referencing Ali’s conversion to Islam and name change from Cassius Clay.
That evening ended with Ali seeking out Crystal, hugging him and whispering in his ear, “You’re my little brother.” Crystal said Ali always referred to him as that in all their subsequent get-togethers.
Muhammad Ali stood by Billy Crystal
Billy Crystal’s eulogy at the memorial service for boxer Muhammad Ali included two stories about how the boxer showed support for the comedian.
Crystal said Ali served as an honorary chairman for a major event in Jerusalem honoring the comedian and went far beyond what was expected by doing promotion and attending the dinner, where he sat with Crystal’s family and posed for numerous photos.
“The most famous Muslim man in the world honoring his Jewish friend,” Crystal said.
In the other story, Crystal recalled an invitation from Ali to join him on a morning run at a country club. Crystal said he couldn’t do it because the club had a reputation for not allowing Jewish members.
“I’m a black Muslim, and they let me run there,” he recalled Ali saying. “Little brother, I’m never going to run there again.”
And, said Crystal, “he didn’t.”
Crystal concluded the eulogy by comparing Ali to legends in the arts:
“Only once in a thousand years or so do we get to hear a Mozart, or see a Picasso, read a Shakespeare. Ali was one of them, and yet at his heart, he was still a kid from Louisville who ran with the gods and walked with the crippled and smiled at the foolishness of it all. He is gone, but he will never die. He was my big brother.”