The boxing legend and humanitarian Muhammad Ali turns 70 this Tuesday, January 17.
In the town where he was born, in the southern US state of Kentucky, a party was held on Saturday night in his honour. Ali was there, along with 250 of his closest friends.
The event was in aid of the Muhammad Ali Center, which showcases the achievements of a man known the world over as, simply, “The Greatest.”
Media access was limited, but I was able to squeeze into the building just in time to see Louisville’s favourite son – and one of the world’s most beloved men – shuffle to the barrier of a balcony overlooking the foyer.
He didn’t speak – I’m not sure he can say much these days – and maintained only a only blank expression throughout his brief appearance. He was supported by his family throughout and his skin appeared to have an unhealthy yellow hue. He was also painfully thin.
Ravaged by thirty years of illness, his body may be gaunt, but his personality can still light up the room.
“I think he was the greatest fighter in the world but I think he was a better man,” Lisa Blank, one of Ali’s guests, told me.
As a little girl, Blank said she used to live next door to the Ali family in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Once, she almost got into a fight with the heavyweight champ by convincing his daughter to adopt a kitten that her own family had been rearing.
Ali was angry .. but in the end the daughter got the kitten anyway, says Lisa.
It was clear to everyone in the room on Saturday, sadly, that Ali is still fighting many battles … even if he no longer requires gloves to do it.
His dramatic life has always grabbed media attention. From his high profile court battle to avoid jail for refusing to fight in Vietnam (a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Washington, DC) to his three world heavyweight championship wins – not to mention his conversion to Islam and humanitarian work in his later years.
Rahman, Ali’s brother, is the spitting image of his more famous sibling .. and very proud of him.
“He’s doing fine his mind is sharp, his motor skills are slow but that’s Parkinson’s that’s normal … but his mind is sharp – as sharp as yours,” Rahman told me.
Ali has inspired millions of people the world over. Friends like the most recent World Heavyweight Champion Lennox Lewis point to his spirituality as a key quality.
“He’s always walking with pride and he’s always walking with strength and he’s very strong in his beliefs and that transcends into him,” he said.
While some of the guests had paid $1,000 each to attend the reception and dinner, however, Ali remains “the peoples’ champion.”
“I wanna say happy birthday Muhammad,” says Russell Routledge, from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne on England’s northeast coast.
In 1977, Routledge was just a boy when Ali paid a surprise visit to a local boys boxing club to help raise funds for uniforms and gloves.
“Ali never forgot us you know … we are just ordinary people that’s all we are we’re just everyday guys he never forgot and we never forget him either,” he told me.
Routledge treasures the black and white photographs he always carries of Ali’s visit 30 years ago, and the memories he holds of that day are fresh in his mind.
My favourite story from the Newcastle native is about a surprise phone call he once received from the “Louisville Lip”.
Seven years after Ali was in Newcastle at the boys club event, Russell wrote to him in the US to say hello, and then forgot all about it.
One day, he was watching an early VHS tape recording of the “Rumble In The Jungle” – Ali’s famous 1974 big purse fight with George Foreman.
The phone rang and it was Ali, calling to invite Russell and his family to be guests at his home in the US.
“Ali, I’m just watching you fight George Foreman on video!” Russell screamed down the phone.
“Really?,” said Ali, “Who won?!”
For me that remark seems to sum up a fighter who had pretty much everything: speed, grace, wit and charm. And it’s why so many people turned out to honour him on his 70th birthday on a freezing night in Louisville, the city that at first rejected his success, but which now cherishes him dearly, while it still can.