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Sen. Orrin Hatch celebrates Muhammad Ali's greatness in funeral speech

LOUISVILLE — God raised up Muhammad Ali to be the greatest boxer of all time but also allowed him to wrestle with Parkinson's disease as an inescapable reminder that everyone is mortal and dependent on grace, Sen. Orrin Hatch said Friday.

The Utah senator, who forged an unlikely friendship with the former heavyweight champ, was among the speakers at Ali's funeral service at the KFC Yum! Center. Ali died June 3 at age 74.

Hatch and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., also introduced a resolution honoring Ali that passed the Senate on Friday.

At the funeral, Hatch reminisced about his 28-year association with Ali, including visiting children at Primary Children's Hospital, attending a Mormon Tabernacle Choir performance and being on the campaign trail together.

"The friendship we developed was, I think, puzzling to many people, especially those who saw only our differences. But where others saw difference, Ali and I saw kinship," he said.

Both were dedicated to their families and deeply devoted to their faiths, Ali to Islam and Hatch, 82, to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints. Both came from humble backgrounds and hardscrabble childhoods. Hatch grew up poor in Pittsburgh and Ali grew up poor in Louisville.

"True, we were different in some ways, but our differences fortified our friendship, they did not define it. I saw greatness in Ali’s ability to look beyond the horizon of our differences to find common ground," Hatch said.

The senator said there were many facets to Ali's greatness, including his abilities as a boxer, charisma as a public figure and benevolence as a father and a friend. Some dismissed Ali's self declaration as "the greatest" as braggadocio, but he spoke the truth, Hatch said. And his greatness, he said, goes beyond the ring.

"Ali was the greatest because — as a debilitated yet unbroken champion in his later years — he pointed us to a greatness beyond ourselves, a greatness beyond even Ali. He pointed us to the greatness of God," Hatch said.

"Ali was an unsurpassed symbol of our universal dependence on the divine. He was the greatest because he reminded us all who is truly greatest: God, our creator."

For all of his ferocity as a fighter, Ali was also a peacemaker, Hatch said.

The senator related a story about a Utah radio host constantly berating him who asked if he could arrange for Ali to meet with Utahn and former middleweight champion Gene Fullmer in a joint interview. Ali agreed and the two former champs shared stories about some the best fights of all time.

"And in the process, Ali charmed that radio host on my behalf, gently transforming an unrepentant antagonist into a respectful sparring partner," Hatch said.

Ali joined Hatch on the campaign trial several times over the years and came to Utah to raise money for needy families. Hatch said Ali didn't see life through the binary lens of Republican versus Democrat that is so common today, but saw worthy causes and shared humanity.

"In Ali’s willingness to put principles ahead of partisanship, he showed us all the path to greatness," Hatch said.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com

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