Muhammad Ali Funeral Procession Under Way in Louisville

Boxing gloves hang on a historical marker outside Muhammad Ali's childhood home as mourners gather for the funeral procession for the three-time heavyweight boxing champion in Louisville, Kentucky, June 10. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) - Luminaries and ordinary people gathered on Friday for a last goodbye to Muhammad Ali - a memorial and funeral procession through the Kentucky hometown of the man celebrated around the world for his boxing skills and strong beliefs.

The procession was to take the body of Ali, who died June 3 at age 74, past landmarks such as his boyhood home on the West End, traditionally an African-American section of town, and the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum in the center of the Louisville.

It was to end at Cave Hill National Cemetery with a private burial.

Thousands of people then were to fill the KFC Yum Center for a memorial featuring eulogies by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal, beginning at 2 p.m. EDT.

Fans such as Cathy Oost, 61, a retired public school teacher who lives in Louisville, was one of several hundred people to gather under blue skies at the cemetery gates to pay their respects. She held a sign that read "Our Champ, Our Hero."

Oost said she was struck by Ali's speaking out for equality and his stance against the Vietnam War, plus his defense of Islam.

"He stood up for his beliefs when it was unpopular and difficult to do so. We all need to do that more," Oost said.

Bridget McKay, 45, also at the cemetery gates, said she felt drawn to witness history.

"I remember when I was a little girl, all the hype around him," she said. "He was so boastful and confident about who he was. He made me feel that it was OK to be myself, that I didn't have to be anyone else."

Jordan's King Abdullah had been announced as one of the dignitaries due to attend the sports arena for the service, but Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who attended a Muslim funeral for Ali on Thursday, cut short his visit to Louisville and was not taking part in Friday's event.

Crystal could reprise parts of his routine called "15 Rounds," a tribute to the three-time heavyweight boxing champion that the comedian first delivered in 1979. In it, Crystal tells Ali's story through a masterful impersonation of the champ and the late sportscaster Howard Cosell, who was an important early defender of Ali during his most controversial days.

Pallbearers will include actor Will Smith, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing the title role in the 2001 film "Ali," and former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis.

On Thursday, the Muslim funeral for Ali drew thousands of mourners who prayed over the body of a man who battled in the ring and sought peace outside it.

Speakers referred to him as "the people's champ" who was praised for advancing the cause of black Americans during and after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Others admired him for making Islam more acceptable and giving U.S. Muslims a hero they could share with mainstream America.