Ten reasons why Billy Crystal’s Muhammad Ali eulogy was a communication masterclass


Billy Crystal went fifteen priceless rounds for Muhammad Ali.

The “Champ” would have been proud of his “Little Brother”. The audience gave him a standing ovation. 

The actor and stand-up comedian delivered a moving, hilarious, inspiring and worthy eulogy at Ali’s massive memorial service in Louisville, Kentucky – for “the champion of the world”. They had been friends for 42 years.

 Crystal’s brilliance as a stage performer and the depth of his friendship with the larger than life boxer showed, but his tribute stood out because of:

1.  Superb preparation.

He understood the moment, the occasion, the audience, he knew exactly what he wanted to convey and how. His preparation was so thorough that he could speak with natural ease, without relying on notes and with warmth, sincerity and emotion.

2.  Humour

His first sentence had the audience roaring with laughter in a long and sombre ceremony. “We’re at the halfway point. I was clean-shaven when this started!” he said sporting a beard. His story about brash commentator Howard Cosell’s funeral where he and Ali started laughing about whether God would recognise Cosell without his hairpiece was a gem.

3.  Connecting with the audience

Billy greeted Ali’s wife, family, friends, former president Bill Clinton, the clergy and “all these amazing people in Louisville”. In a natural and credible way, Crystal describes his Jewish family’s dedication to civil rights and how he could “feel” Ali, his campaigning for Afro Americans and his anti- (Vietnam) war stance.

4.  Powerful messages

In the first minute he captures the sentiments of every one in the audience. “Thirty five years after he stopped fighting he is still the champion of the world”. Crystal describes his one-man show in 1979, “Fifteen rounds” before 20 000 people to celebrate Ali’s retirement, and his gratitude hug afterwards:” Little Brother, you made my life better than it was.” Crystal asks: “Didn’t he make all our lives a little bit better than they were?”

5.  Poignant moments

With the news of Ali’s death, Crystal said, “time stopped, there was no war, no terrorists, no global catastrophes, and the world stopped, took a deep breath and sighed.”

6.  Stories, brilliantly told

Crystal recounted personal moments with Ali. He packed so much texture, background and scene set into the stories, that they were as vivid as video clips. With his descriptive words, use of his voice, pace, silences he had the audience in the palm of his hand. He did the Ali and Cosell accents perfectly. His matching facial expressions, wry smiles, expressive hands and presence enhanced the brilliance of his content.

7.  Self-effacing confessions

Crystal shared how he was struggling as a new comedian in 1974. A lucky break had him doing a Howard Cosell/Ali impersonation on a televised dinner for Ali. Without having met Ali, Crystal had the programme director introduce him as “one of Ali’s closet and dearest friends”. Overwhelmed, he tells of the first time he saw Ali shortly before his performance, “glowing and in slow motion”.

8.  Memorable quotes

Crystal’s quotes touched hearts and minds. “You had to live in his time.” “Every one of his fights had the aura of a Superbowl.” The Vietnam War draft made “all of us huddle on the conveyer belt that was rapidly feeding the war machine”. “Only once in a thousand years do we get to hear a Mozart, see a Picasso, read a Shakespeare. Ali was one of them…..”

9.  Unexpected turns, punch lines

He describes Ali: “He was funny, he was beautiful, he was the most perfect athlete you ever saw.” And then adds: “And those were his own words.”

10.  Beautiful prose

“He was a tremendous bolt of lighting, created by Mother Nature out of thin air – a fantastic combination of power and beauty……. And at the moment of impact it lights up everything around it. Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night, in the heart of its most threatening, gathering storm, his power toppled the mightiest of foes and his intense light shined on America and we were able to see clearly: injustice, inequality, poverty, pride, self-realisation, courage, laughter, love, joy and religious freedom for all. Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves.”

And then that memorable ending:

“He is gone, but he will never die. He was my big brother.”