By CLAIRE GALOFARO and BRUCE SCHREINER
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – He carried a dozen roses into Cave Hill Cemetery and headed for a patch of grass in the back corner that seemed too ordinary for the man buried beneath it.
Farzam Farrokhi had worried there would be a horde of people Saturday morning elbowing for a place among the first to see Muhammad Ali’s grave. Instead he found a quiet and reverent stream of visitors. There was not yet a headstone marking the spot. No rope cordoned off those wishing to kneel, pray or kiss the grave.
It would have looked like any unremarkable rectangle of fresh sod had people not been snapping photos. A few brought flowers, one left a tiny set of boxing gloves. A man unfurled an Islamic flag and laid it alongside the grave. Farrokhi, a native of Iran, drove 12 hours from his home in Queens, New York, for Ali’s funeral. He was grateful for no massive crowds so he could sit and reflect on the life and the death of The Greatest, who suffered for years with Parkinson’s disease.
“I can’t imagine a heart like Ali’s being stuck in a body where he can’t do what he wants to do. Now he can be free,” he said. “Maybe he’s shaking up the next world already.” Ali was buried Friday in a corner of his hometown’s historic Cave Hill Cemetery, 300 acres famous for its beauty and wildlife.
Ali picked the site himself. He toured the cemetery’s twisting paths and towering trees and decided on this spot just across from a flower patch and a lake, with a fountain that babbles day and night. Four geese moseyed across the road nearby Saturday morning. His headstone will be simple when it’s installed, in keeping with Muslim tradition. It will be inscribed with just one word: Ali.
Jake and Janell Bessler drove from Evansville to see it Saturday. On the way, they told their 4-weekold daughter, Violet, sleeping in her car seat, about the boxing great and what he meant to the world.
“We told her `this is history, you get to be a part of it,” Janell said. They sat her in front of the grave and snapped a photo, so she’ll be able to see it one day. Visitors trickled in from near and far. James Terry, a Louisville native, carried a map of the cemetery, marking the family plot on the other side where he will one day be buried. He delighted at the idea he will share the same dirt as The Champ.
Roy Johnson, a long-haul truck driver from Colton, California, was delivering a load a paper to New Jersey when the heard about Ali’s death. It broke his heart, he said. Ali made him believe, as a little black boy, that greatness was possible if he fought for it hard enough and never wavered.
Johnson was planning to visit his son, stationed at Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border during his trip. He drove about 100 miles out of his way to be among the first to see Ali’s grave.
“My heart is beating really fast right now, I’m in awe of this moment,” he said. “I never got a chance to meet him when he was alive. Now he’s just a few feet away. It’s just beautiful to be standing here.”
Farrokhi stopped at a florist on the way and surveyed the bouquets of roses. They had bunches in red and yellow and white. Then he found one that mixed all the colors.
“When you think of Ali’s fans, they’re every color,” he said. “It seemed right, that’s how he wanted the world to be.”
He pulled the flowers off the stems one by one, crushed the petals between his fingers and sprinkled them on top of Ali’s grave, rows of magenta yellow, red and white. He repeated it 11 times until he got to the last flower, a pale pink one.
He kneeled and laid it whole at Ali’s feet.