In Louisville, fans mourn local hero Ali

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky - Some say they have lost a father figure. One classmate mourned the loss of a "prophet".

In front of Muhammad Ali's modest family home in Louisville, friends and fans on Saturday paid tribute to "The Greatest".

Flowers, photos and letters were piled up at 3302 Grand Avenue in Louisville, the Kentucky city at the crossroads of the US Midwest and the deep South where Ali was raised and first started boxing.

The small house - freshly painted pink - is now a museum honoring the heavyweight champ, who died on Friday at age 74.

Fans and residents said Ali's epic victories in the ring were only one side of the man who transcended the world of sports.

"Boxing, man, that wasn't his mission: he's so much bigger than this," Sonny Fishback, a song writer and music producer who went to school with Ali, told AFP.

At that time, Ali was still known as Cassius Clay, and he was leaner than in his heavyweight prime.

He was raised in the Baptist faith, and reading scripture was important. He and Fishback used to walk home from school together.

"He would say, 'I am going to be the heavyweight champ. No one believed it," the 75-year-old Fishback said.

"Black people at that time had not much confidence... He had a message for us: you are beautiful," Fishback added.

"He was a prophet."

The Clay family home is small, but has been recently renovated to accommodate the museum. There is only one set of windows and one door in the facade.

Ali is mourned by millions around the globe, but the sense of loss was pervasive in Louisville, where people still have not forgotten the racial segregation of the past.

"People started to come at 2:00 am," said museum curator Evan Bochetto.

Tony Wickware, a 63-year-old retiree, came to the house with his 17-year-old son.

"When I heard the news, it shocked me first and then I cried, I cried all night. It hurts. It's like he is my dad," Wickware told AFP.

Nearby, a stream of well-wishers, most of them African Americans like Ali, paraded by. Children left balloons, drawings and even boxing gloves.

They then left, often after taking a photo to mark the solemn occasion.

It was in the neighborhood streets that a 12-year-old Cassius vowed to "whup" whoever stole his red bicycle.

"You better learn how to box first," a policeman told him.

Little did that officer know his advice would spark a storied career of three heavyweight titles and Olympic gold.

The legend-in-the-making - called "The Louisville Lip" for his sometimes blistering tirades - threw his first jabs and uppercuts at his little brother Rahman, now 72.

On Saturday, Rahman's voice was hoarse and his body trembled - he has voiced fears that he too may suffer from the Parkinson's that ravaged his brother.

"It was fun, fun, fun. We were wrestling, we would play hockey, we would play cards - all the things kids do," he recalled.

The brothers were sparring partners, even if Rahman's boxing career would never reach the heights achieved by his sibling.

"Every time I watch him fight, every time I watch him speak, he is very inspirational," said Alex Davis, a 25-year-old dental assistant who came to the family home.

"He put love and he put peace first, and I think that message will carry over for a long time."