- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2012

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — At 70, Muhammad Ali is “still the greatest” to friends and admirers worldwide.

The boxing champ basked in chants of “Ali! Ali!” as hundreds of supporters cheered him on Saturday night with a hearty rendition of “Happy Birthday” during his 70th birthday celebration in his Kentucky hometown. Never mind that Ali actually turns 70 years old on Tuesday: The private party in his hometown is the first of five planned in the next few months.

As party-goers mingled in a lobby of the Muhammad Ali Center before the festivities, Ali walked slowly to a second-floor balcony overlooking them. The crowd immediately began to clap, then broke into effusive chants and singing. The three-time world heavyweight champion, who is battling Parkinson’s disease, leaned against a rail and raised his right hand to wave to the crowd. Then he joined his party out of view of the public and the press.

Former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis said his boyhood idol is “still the greatest.”

“I feel so proud and honored that we’re able to show our feelings and show our support for him,” Lewis said.

The guest list numbered 350 for the private party, which doubled as a $1,000-per-person fundraiser for the Ali Center, a 6-year-old cultural and education complex designed to be a legacy to his social activism. The six-story center also retraces Ali’s career, including his epic bouts against Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston.

The guest list included Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, and three American hikers who were imprisoned in Iran. Ali, perhaps the most prominent U.S. Muslim, lobbied for their release. Rocker John Mellencamp headlined the entertainment.

Dundee, who traveled from Clearwater, Fla., for the celebration, said he hears from Ali about once a month.

“We’re like family,” Dundee told the Courier-Journal of Louisville. “We’ve always been family, and we’re always going to be family. He’ll say, ‘Angie, I want to come and train. That’s what I miss the most. Being in the gym. Working up a sweat.’”

Guests paid tribute to Ali before filling a banquet hall for a party closed to the public.

“The reason I loved him is because of his confidence,” University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari said. “He would talk and then back it up. He had great courage, and who had more fun than him?”

The self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time” remains one of the world’s most recognizable figures, even though he’s been largely absent from the public eye recently as he fights Parkinson’s disease.

His wife, Lonnie Ali, said recently that the boxing great has mixed feelings about the landmark birthday.

“He’s glad he’s here to turn 70, but he wants to be reassured he doesn’t look 70,” she said.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, Ali took up boxing at age 12, when his bike was stolen and he wanted to find and whip the culprit. The boy was introduced to Joe Martin, a police officer who coached boxing at a local gym.

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