Killing the Legends: The Lethal Danger of Celebrity
JUNE 3, 2016
“The Greatest” is no more.
Boxer Muhammad Ali is seventy-four years old. Over the course of his legendary career, it is estimated that the heavyweight champ absorbed almost two hundred thousand blows to the head and torso. He has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but in the words of his wife, Lonnie, it is a “little cold” that has sent him to HonorHealth Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center, where he was admitted one week ago. Ali’s serious condition was quickly ascertained, and because his body lacked the resources to fight the infection, he was moved to intensive care and quickly placed on a ventilator.
But now Muhammad Ali’s pulse slows to nothing. A Muslim prayer leader known as an imam sings words of praise into the boxer’s right ear. And even though Lonnie Ali, the boxer’s fourth wife, and his nine children are all gathered, the voice of Zaid Shakir will be the last one Ali will ever hear. The boxer has been a Muslim for more than fifty years. In 1964, after three years as a practicing Muslim, he formally joined the Nation of Islam, and in 1967 he left behind his given name of Cassius Clay.
A doctor presses a stethoscope to Muhammad Ali’s chest and then declares the time of death.
Ali’s body is taken to the Bunker Hill Funeral Home for embalming. Normally, in the Muslim faith, the deceased is buried within twenty-four hours of death and the body lowered into the ground rather than placed in a coffin. But owing to Ali’s global celebrity, and the need for the sort of public closure a large funeral provides, several years prior to his death he forged a spiritual solution. His corpse would be embalmed, but only with a solution containing no alcohol or formaldehyde. Undertaker Jeff Gardner, a Catholic from Ali’s hometown of Louisville, was hired eight years ago to perform this task. Ever since the Ali family requested his services, Gardner has worn a pager to alert him of the boxer’s demise. When news of Ali’s hospitalization came, the undertaker immediately boarded a private jet and flew to Phoenix.
Gardner is met at Bunker Hill by Ahmad Ewais, who has been hired to cleanse Ali’s body after the embalming. Lighting a stick of incense, Ewais uses soap and water to wash the champ. Ali’s body is covered by a towel from his neck to his knees. Then Ewais cleans the entire body a second time, using ground lotus leaves. On the third and final washing, Ewais uses camphor and perfume before covering the corpse in three sheets of linen. When he is done, only Ali’s face can be seen.
The boxer is then lifted into a travel casket, placed in a white hearse, and driven to the airport, where the private jet awaits.
Muhammad Ali is going home to Louisville one last time. His burial will take place one week after his death. The memorial service will be held in the city’s convention center. Tickets for the service will be gone within minutes.
The cause of death is officially septic shock, with some believing Ali’s Parkinson’s was a contributing factor. But as with Elvis Presley and John Lennon, the downfall of this legend was brought on by other human beings.
A poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi. A poor boy from Liverpool, England. A poor boy from Louisville, Kentucky.
Ironically, these three legends had much in common despite living vastly different lives.
All three men achieved vast wealth and fame. All possessed talent and charisma. All surrendered their autonomy to others.
And that capitulation sealed their destinies.
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