Originally created 01/19/99

Fans, family gather for Ali's 57th birthday



LAS VEGAS -- Fans and family of boxer Muhammad Ali gathered for an emotional 57th birthday party for the former champ Sunday night, recounting the ups and downs of the man who considered himself "the greatest."

Among those on hand for the event at the MGM Grand hotel-casino was former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who defeated Francois Botha 24 hours earlier. It was Tyson's first fight since being banned from boxing 19 months ago after biting Evander Holyfield's ears in a 1997 heavyweight championship bout.

Neither Tyson nor Ali spoke to the crowd, although both posed for pictures with fans and family invited to the private dinner party. Ali suffers from Parkinson's disease.

He had shown his support for Tyson by appearing at Tyson's reinstatement hearing before the Nevada State Athletic Commission in October, and being on hand for his comeback fight.

Longtime associate Gene Kilroy recounted a time during the height of Ali's career when Ali learned a senior citizens' home was having trouble paying its bills. Kilroy said Ali gave the home two checks for a total of $300,000. When he praised Ali for the good deed, Kilroy said the boxer told him: "Kindness to others is the rent we pay for our time on earth."

And he recalled a time when Ali learned a 5-year-old boy was dying of leukemia. He visited the boy before one of his fights and told the youngster "You're going to win your fight, and I'm going to win my fight."

Shortly before the fight, Kilroy said Ali received a call that the boy had taken a turn for the worse. Ali and Kilroy drove two hours to the University of Pennsylvania hospital. Kilroy said when they entered the boy's room, the youngster said "I knew you would come."

Ali told the boy he was going to pull through and Kilroy said the boy responded: "I'm gonna meet God and I'm gonna tell him I know you."

The boy died three weeks later, Kilroy said.

A film traced Ali's life from his birth Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Ky. as Cassius Clay Jr., to his 1960 Olympic Gold Medal and a career that was interrupted when he was stripped of his title for refusing to register for the draft.

The brash Ali proclaimed "I am the greatest" and said his style was to "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

Singer Gladys Knight, a longtime friend, praised Ali at the birthday dinner, noting one of her sons was named after him.

"He was not only the greatest outside, he was the greatest inside," she said.

Tyson then helped wheel out a birthday cake in the shape of a boxing ring and Ali helped cut the cake as the crowd chanted "Ali, Ali."

Ali's wife, Lonnie, said her husband has been "an inspiration to everyone he has met and everyone he has touched from afar."

She added that Tyson said a few years ago that his dream was to "follow in Ali's footsteps."