Ali sat at the foot of the ring where, as a 22-year-old named Cassius Clay, he upset 7-1 odds to defeat Sonny Liston on 25 February 1964.
The decor, ambience and lighting of the fight were recreated in an amphitheatre at the Miami Beach Convention Centre.
The evening, billed as A Night to Celebrate the Champ, marked the US release of GOAT – Greatest Of All Time – a 34kg, 800-page book of photographs, artwork, articles and essays about the boxing legend.
Dressed in a yellow pullover, Ali, now 61 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was smiling and emotional at times during the tribute.
“Ali was my hero,” said Benedikt Taschen, the German editor of GOAT, recalling how in the 1960s he would get up in the middle of the night to watch Ali’s fights on television.
Ali contested more than 60 bouts in an 18-year career, with a record of 56 victories and five defeats.
He won the heavyweight championship three times.
Former trainer Angelo Dundee, current manager Bernie Yuman, friends, photographers and journalists who closely followed the boxer’s life, all took their turn in the ring which doubled as a stage, before thousands of invited guests.
Actor Will Smith, who portrayed Ali in the film of the same name, acted as spokesman for the boxer during the evening. “He told me I was almost pretty enough to play Muhammad Ali,” Smith joked, in a reference to Ali’s famous bragging.
“Ali is my hero, and yours,” said Smith. “We met in 1957. What a great time. He was the greatest, and he is still the greatest,” said Dundee.
“He is the most recognisable living icon on the planet,” Yuman said.
The tribute and book release featured videos and photos of the champion and recordings of his famous boasts – many of which caused Ali to smile.
“Muhammad Ali is the most recognisable living icon on the planet“
The most salient phrase of the evening, ubiquitous on shirts and banners throughout the hall, was Ali’s famous words describing his boxing style: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Considered one of the best athletes ever, Ali was known for “dancing” in the ring – shuffling his powerful legs while delivering blows – for haranguing banter in the ring and outrageous, often poetic boasts to the press.
But he is also remembered for his actions outside the ring. As
the first national figure to speak out against the war in Vietnam, he nearly sacrificed his career by refusing to be drafted.
Stripped of his championship title, his passport and all his boxing licences and facing a five-year prison term, Ali did not fight for two and a half years.
The Supreme Court ultimately reversed his conviction and Ali staged a comeback that saw some of his most famous fights, such as the Rumble in the Jungle match-up with George Foreman in the former Zaire, in which Ali was pounded for seven rounds before knocking Foreman out in the eighth.
Now retired, Ali lives in Michigan with his fourth wife, Lonnie.