Muhammad Ali at 70: Jeff Powell reports from Kentucky

Jeff Powell reports from Kentucky: Happy birthday, Champ… at 70 you're still The Greatest


Jeff and The Greatest: Sportsmail's Jeff Powell was the only British journalist invited to Muhammad Ali's official birthday celebration reports from Louisville

Jeff and The Greatest: Sportsmail's Jeff Powell was the only British journalist invited to Muhammad Ali's official birthday celebration reports from Louisville

We came, we privileged few, to rejoice at The Miracle On 6th Street. To celebrate with The Greatest as he took the fight of his life ever onward, to his 70th birthday and beyond. This withering fight against Parkinson’s disease, which any normal human being would have lost years ago.

With Muhammad Ali, the wonders never cease. Not even when the hands won’t stop shaking and the voice can’t speak. He had no right being at his own party on Saturday night. The doctors told him as much a quarter of a century ago. Yet here he was.

Walking in through the snow which was falling on his old home town, as light and pretty as he used to dance in the boxing ring. Coming in from the cold to fill a room in the Muhammad Ali Center with warm memories and undying love.

Appearing on a balcony to wave to a Louisville crowd singing Happy Birthday. Like royalty. Still he’s a king, this uncommon man with whom we then sat down to dinner.

He took his place between his wife and one of his sisters-in-law and he never said a word. He didn’t have to. The fastest tongue in the west has been stilled by his affliction so he has mastered the art of maximising even the slightest of gestures.

As a once dab hand at magic tricks, he opened his eyes as wide and faux manic as he did after he beat Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight title.

Curiously now, he hardly ever blinks. It’s as if he doesn’t want to miss so much as a split second of what life has left to give him.

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Legend: Muhammad Ali (left) welcomed guests at his 70th birthday celebrations

Legend: Muhammad Ali (left) welcomed guests at his 70th birthday celebrations

He turned to watch actress Meg
Ryan’s surprise, theatrical arrival with appreciative intensity. He
smiled as Grammy award- winning John Mellencamp sang hits rooted in his
crusade to help struggling American farmers.

And, when the local politicians gave
enough speeches for a filibuster, Ali duly dozed off at the table, that
most resilient of boxers’ chins nestled safely on his chest. That way he
made it through a long night which ended with them lifting his tired
and now-slender frame into a wheelchair for the ride home.

No, he is not a well man. But yes, he
continues to defy convention the way he did in the boxing ring, the way
he refused to pick a fight with the Vietcong, the way he changed his
name from Cassius Clay and converted to Islam better to champion the
cause of civil rights for black Americans.

Who else could prove that actually you can have your cake and eat it

Partners: Ali with his trainer Angelo Dundee at the champion's birthday celebration in Kentucky

Partners: Ali with his trainer Angelo Dundee at the champion's birthday celebration in Kentucky

Having feasted on his genius for much
of a lifetime, the icing which topped off our dinner came in the
decorative shape of butterflies and bees on his birthday cake.

This two-candle, three-tier creation
was wheeled to his table by the only fighter since Ali to reign as the
undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

None other than our own Lennox Lewis,
who was making his second pilgrimage to the Ali Center. The first time
he donated no less than $250,000 of his hard-won cash to this non-profit
venture which Ali founded with a cool million of his own. That puts
Lennox (left, with Ali) high on a wall of thanks here among not only
corporations but other celebrities. Michael J Fox, another Parkinson’s
sufferer, gave 10 grand, as did Celine Dion, while Angelina Jolie wrote a
cheque for $100,000.

This second time Lewis brought in the
cake and said: ‘A lot of athletes now don’t realise Ali paved the way
for all of us. Every fighter should come here at least once. This place
is impressive, spiritual and motivating. I was the greatest for a while,
but he is the greatest of all time.

‘Above all, I love watching films of his fights. He was incredible.’

Float like a butterfly, sting like a
bee. The second part of Ali’s most famous couplet goes like this: the
hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.

Champ: Former heavyweight Lennox Lewis arrives for Ali's birthday (above) and with Ali in 2001 (below)

Champ: Former heavyweight Lennox Lewis arrives for Ali's birthday (above) and with Ali in 2001 (below)

Champ: Former heavyweight Lennox Lewis arrives for Ali's birthday (above) and with Ali in 2001 (below)

Champ: Former heavyweight Lennox Lewis arrives for Ali's birthday (above) and with Ali in 2001 (below)

Well, not even The Greatest can see
Parkinson’s disease, but he gives it a clobbering just the same. With
every year that goes by. With every entrance he makes like this one
into the building which is a monument to the most phenomenal athlete of
all time, the heavyweight champion for the ages, the most electrifying
personality ever to illuminate our lives.

His iconic trainer Angelo Dundee
(below, with Ali) came, at 90, in his wheelchair. He said it best:
‘Every time this guy did something it was excitement. It’s still
excitement now when he just comes walking in with Parkinson’s. Trouble
is he’s spoiled us because there will never be another like him.’

Yes it is, and no there won’t. If
anyone went into the room unsure of that, they knew it as soon as they
watched on screen the finely crafted highlights of his fights, life and
times.

What none of us wanted to put into
words is the fear that this dazzling light will go out sooner rather
than later. That one of the almost-daily reports of his death will turn
out to be anything but premature. That this could be the last hurrah.

Who better to reassure us than the
man himself. The most recognisable man on the planet is no longer the
most audible but the Louisville Lip has given way to the twinkle in the
eye and his silence speaks volumes.

A few more candles this time: Ali is pictured blowing out the candles on his 25th birthday cake

A few more candles this time: Ali is pictured blowing out the candles on his 25th birthday cake

I am the greatest! Ali was never shy to proclaim that he was the best boxer in the world

I am the greatest! Ali was never shy to proclaim that he was the best boxer in the world

Of course, many of the exhibits in
this museum of a most gregarious man are audio-visually interactive, and
he calls up one quote he was able to articulate: ‘I don’t feel sorry
for myself so I don’t want anyone else to feel sorry for me. Some days
are better than others but no matter how challenging the day, I get up
and live it. Whatever the future holds, I will come out on top.’

Lonnie, the childhood friend who
eventually became his fourth wife, speaks wisely for him, too. She tells
us of one incentive for him to keep ticking off the years: ‘He’s really
just a big kid who enjoys his birthday parties. He enjoys being the
centre of attention. He’s glad he’s here to turn 70, but he does want to
be assured that he doesn’t look 70.’

Don’t worry, Muhammad. Still the prettiest as well as the greatest.

His wife has still not found a present to give him tomorrow morning: ‘What do you give a man who has everything’

Wink, wink: Ali on his way to, and celebrating, a unanimous points victory over Joe Frazier in New York

Wink, wink: Ali on his way to, and celebrating, a unanimous points victory over Joe Frazier in New York

Wink, wink: Ali before, and during, his unanimous points victory over Joe Frazier in New York

As it happens, Lonnie keeps giving
her Muhammad the greatest gift of all. The care, attention and one
important reason to carry on living … herself. She reminds us of how
accurately he used to predict the round in which he would win his title
fights and to take heart from his belief in his future. Not that many of
us have hearts as big as the one which slew the Liston monster.

Which carried Ali through his epic
trilogy with Joe Frazier to ultimate victory in the Thrilla in Manila,
though he remembers to this day it took him closer to death than his
illness.

Which shocked the world and George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle.

Which made him the first three-time heavyweight champion of the world.

When he ended up in hospital
following his pre-Christmas journey to Frazier’s funeral some questioned
the wisdom of these public appearances. But he is on record as saying
his continued refusal to give way to Parkinson’s can ‘offer hope to
thousands of others suffering this disease’.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s no
fewer than 28 years ago. Nobody would have backed him then, or since, to
outlive such opponents as Frazier and Sir Henry Cooper.

Rumble in the Jungle: Ali famously beat George Foreman in Zaire after adopting 'rope-a-dope' tactics

Rumble in the Jungle: Ali famously beat George Foreman in Zaire after adopting 'rope-a-dope' tactics

Rumble in the Jungle: Ali famously beat George Foreman in Zaire after adopting 'rope-a-dope' tactics

Happy birthday, Champ: The Greatest

Happy birthday, Champ: The Greatest

Our ’Enery would have been here. As
it was the only three Englishmen in the house that Muhammad built were
Lewis, myself and a lifelong fan from Newcastle who became Ali’s friend.
It was an honour to be one of them.

This was Ali’s homecoming from his
winter sunshine estate in Arizona to the city where he met Lonnie when
they were growing up in the tough West End district and where he started
boxing at the age of 12.

The Ali Center is his spiritual home.
Hence its displays not only of his boxing glories but of his refusal
to be drafted to the war in Vietnam which exiled him from the ring for
three prime years, his freedom rallying with Martin Luther King Jnr and
his battle with Parkinson’s past an age which not every healthy human
might reach.

It was also the birthday with family
and friends. Other events are planned, notably a star-studded,
made-for-television gala at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas next month.

Lonnie said: ‘There are some lovely
tributes to come but this is the birthday party, and Muhammad wanted it
to be here, where it all started.’

It was an emotional evening. When it
ended, with the heroes’ hero being wheeled away into streets where the
snow had turned to ice, some strong men cried and stronger women fought
back the tears.

As for the great man himself, he smiled.

Happy birthday on Tuesday, Champ. Long may the miracles and the party go on.