Muhammad Ali walked slowly to a mezzanine railing, one floor above a crowd of well-wishers in the lobby of the center in Louisville, Kentucky that bears his name, and waved. A crowd in the lobby below, which had been buzzing moments earlier while waiting to be whisked to the sixth floor for a private party, fell silent for an instant, then clapped and broke into the familiar chant of "Ali, Ali."
Even as he approaches his 70th birthday, the man they call The Greatest, still the most recognizable face on the planet, commands a room. "This isn't a tribute, it's a birthday party," John Ramsey, a Louisville media personality and longtime Ali friend, told the crowd, which then broke into a rendition of "Happy Birthday."
That delighted Ali, who was wearing a dark suit, white shirt and red-and-blue tie and flanked by his wife Lonnie and her sister, Marilyn Williams. Ali, who was hospitalized recently (the family said it was dehydration), moves slowly these days. His hands shake and he often needs someone to lean on when he walks, though he walked to the railing on his own. But though the Parkinson's disease he has battled for many years makes it difficult for him to speak, his charisma and mischievous sense of humor come through in his body language. Even now, people are drawn to him.
Ali turns 70 on Tuesday. The celebrity-laden party at the Muhammad Ali Center, which doubled as a $1,000-per-plate fundraiser for the non-profit center, is one of five planned parties across the country over the next couple of months.
"I don't know if [his career] resonates with young people now," ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon told TIME. "I don't know if they know about the the controversy, how reviled he was. Who in the culture now starts out that reviled and becomes that beloved? You don't see it."
Ali's brother Rahaman Ali, 68, recalls his brother as a "jolly, gay, beautiful, kind and sweet person" who never beat up on him and in fact protected him from other kids. "We could see the greatness in him when he was 12," Rahaman Ali told TIME.
"He's the greatest fighter who ever lived," said former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, who told TIME he used to sit with his mother in front of the TV and watch Ali fight. "I always got mad if I didn't see the Ali shuffle," he said. Lewis, who emulated the shuffle, said he's visited the Ali Center several times. "It always inspires me."
"This man has committed himself in a way most people don't fully realize," NBC's Ann Curry told TIME as she waited for the party to begin. "I think it's hard to quantify humanitarian impact. You win a title, and they give you a fancy belt and your name up in lights. When you make children less hungry; when you ease suffering; when you make people less afraid; when you increase equality in the world, there's not as much fanfare or attention, but the impact actually is deeper and long-lasting. So I'm here to say that and stand up for him on his 70th birthday."
Wilbon grew up on the South Side of Chicago during a time Ali lived part time in Chicago; he recalls seeing the champ shooting dice and hanging out with kids in the neighborhood. Though he was too young to be personally inspired by Ali's example, he said in hindsight it's a profound lesson and more remarkable because that sort of courage is lacking in contemporary society. "He chose to do difficult things," Wilbon said. "People don't want to do that anymore. I thank him for it, and that's something he did underscore for me."
Neil Leifer, who took the iconic photograph of Ali standing over Sonny Liston, said, "I was a kid when I first photographed Ali. The same goes for Howard Cosell he wasn't much older than me. Ali made him famous. He made a hero out of everybody. But that's the thing about Muhammad that was so special; you didn't have to be Howard Cosell or me working for Sports Illustrated. He treated the kid who came from a high school newspaper the same as he would treat Life mag or Sport Illustrated."
David Jones can attest to that. Living in Kansas City in 1974, Jones had a chance encounter with Ali at a fundraiser. Boxing was, of course, the subject of discussion. Jones' father, to punish him for breaking a window, made him start boxing, and in 1968, Jones became a Golden Gloves champion at 139 pounds. It was during their conversation that Ali learned that Jones worked for TWA. "He said, 'You come and watch me fight George Foreman,'" Jones told TIME. Jones used his airlines connections to make it to Zaire and has been an Ali acolyte since, attending a dozen matches (along with fights by Ali's daughter, Laila) and taking thousands of photographs.
"Muhammad Ali is many things to many people," says Jones, who traveled from Dallas for the birthday party. "He proved that if you can dream it, you can do it. If you struggle in life, there's an inner spirit that will take you to the next level."
And Ali had fun along the way, says John Calipari, the University of Kentucky men's basketball coach. "The reason I loved him is because of his confidence," he told TIME. "He would talk, and he would back it up. He had great courage to go against the grain. And look how much fun he had." Calipari added: "He understood that he had a brand before anybody understood or heard about brands. He was ahead of the curve."
The party drew numerous celebrities, including Curry and Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today Show." Rocker John Mellencamp, with new girlfriend Meg Ryan in tow, was scheduled to provide entertainment. Angelo Dundee, Ali's longtime trainer, attended the party, as did Ali biographer and photographer Howard Bingham. Three attendees were particularly grateful to be there: Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sara Shourd, the American hikers who were detained in Iran. Ali, as a prominent American Muslim, went to bat to win their release.
On Friday, Lonnie Ali told reporters that her husband is "glad he's here to turn 70, but he wants to be reassured he doesn't look 70." And she said he loves the attention. "Muhammad likes celebrations that involve him and are centered around him. He's still a big kid in that area. He loves birthdays."