LAS VEGAS >> A casino owner paid more than a million dollars for boxing gloves Muhammad Ali used to defend his title. Samuel L. Jackson dedicated a rendition of “Stand By Me” to the boxer. And President Barack Obama told the icon in a birthday tribute that he inspired the world.
By the end of the night, all Ali needed to do to capture the hearts of 2,000 revelers in Las Vegas Saturday was go onstage and smile.
Ali sat next to Stevie Wonder, who played keyboards and sang his version of “Happy Birthday,” while stars including Sean “Diddy” Combs, Kelly Rowland, LL Cool J, Quincy Jones, Sugar Ray Leonard and boxing promoter Bob Arum followed along.
Combs pinched Ali’s cheeks and whispered in his ear, then closed out the nearly 5-hour gala by professing his deep admiration for the fighter.
Ali’s eyes widened. He pointed at Combs, then back at his own head, twirling his index finger as if to tell Combs he’s crazy.
“The greatest of all time,” Combs said after leading the crowd in shouting “Happy birthday, Ali.”
The moment closed out the celebration of Ali’s life and fundraiser to generate millions of dollars for brain research, a mission Ali’s family says is important to him in part because of his nearly 30-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
“Happy birthday, champ,” Obama told Ali through a video message, saying he wished he could have attended a swanky dinner gala in Las Vegas featuring some of the biggest names in sports, film, television and music.
“As a fighter, you were something spectacular,” Obama told Ali, who turned 70 last month. “You shocked the world, and you inspired it, too. And even after all the titles and legendary bouts, you’re still doing it.”
A set of gloves Ali used to defeat Floyd Patterson in 1965 in Las Vegas — the first heavyweight title fight in Sin City — sold for $1.1 million. It came with one of the original posters used to promote the fight, which had Muhammad Ali’s chosen name as a subscript to Cassius Clay, the name he was born with. When Ali converted to Islam, many people resisted calling him by his new name.
Ali entered the room and sat at a table with his family before bidding began on the gloves.
Lorenzo Fertitta, a casino owner and owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed marital arts league, won the gloves, which organizers had said earlier they hoped would fetch $500,000.
Football great Jim Brown said Ali represents the greatest of America, because at one time people only recognized his athletic ability and didn’t like what he had to say. That changed over time, he said.
“America started with slavery and ended up with a black president,” Brown said. “Muhammad Ali was a part of that … a big part.”
Ali’s wife, Lonnie Ali, told the star-studded crowd that her husband’s greatest wish has always been to inspire and help others. She said he feels that his life really began when he retired from the ring.
“Muhammad’s gift of inspiration is timeless, and now more relevant than ever,” she said after being introduced by music icon Quincy Jones.
Lonnie Ali introduced a video montage of her husband’s life, including clips from his work with children.
“People look for miracles, people look for wonders, people expect surprises of all kinds,” Ali said in the video. “Yet the greatest wonder, the greatest miracle, the greatest surprise is to be found in one’s heart.”
Guests arriving on the red carpet included football great Franco Harris, supermodel Cindy Crawford, acting star Jackson, Ali’s children and grandchildren and Chuck Wepner, who fought Ali in 1975 for the heavyweight title and lost.
“I would go anywhere in the world for Muhammad Ali’s birthday,” Wepner said.
One of Ali’s daughters, Rasheda Ali, said the gala was a chance for friends, family and A-listers who look up to her father to show their respect for his life and legacy as a humanitarian. In return, she says he’ll be honored to see them there.
“He has not left that need to help others,” Rasheda Ali said. “That’s one of his core values — his charity and his giving.”
The gala — with tickets starting at $1,500 per plate — was held at the MGM Grand, the site of most of boxing’s major fights the past two decades. Famous faces converged on the 160 tables adjacent to two rings and a stage — Terrence Howard, David Beckham, Anthony Hopkins, Manny Pacquiao, and Lenny Kravitz, among others. They spoke and performed in tribute to a fighter who went 56-5 in the ring with 37 knockouts and became perhaps the most famous athlete ever because of his personality and willingness to publicly stand up for his beliefs.
“He’s done it with guts and grace, with his fists, and with his wits,” Jackson said. “He’s one of the groundbreaking figures of the generation that helped make the world a more open place when it comes to who we can love, where we can go and what we can do. Thank you, champ.”
Wonder, who performed earlier in the day at Whitney Houston’s funeral, performed “Keep Our Love Alive” and “Superstition.” Rasheda Ali said Wonder was the performer her father was most looking forward to seeing.
Wonder wasn’t the only performer.
Snoop Dogg sang a medley of his hits, John Legend, Kravitz, Slash, Kelly Rowland and Cee Lo Green all performed. LL Cool J rapped “Mama Said Knock You Out” as DJ Z-Trip span a remixed version of the song that included Ali audio, including his famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” quote.
Tennis great Andre Agassi said Ali has shown the world that each person has a duty — regardless of their occupation — to live for more than him or herself and help others.
“What he did with his platform was unparalleled and the impact he’s had as a result, we still feel to this day, which is why we’re all out here tonight,” Agassi said. “We’re grateful to what he’s done. He’s been a leader — we’re also challenged and charged with a duty of figuring out a way to do more.”
Ali has lived with Parkinson’s disease for nearly 30 years, a degenerative brain condition that some doctors say can be brought on by punches to the head.
The gala raised funds for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., a cultural attraction that celebrates Ali’s life and pushes educational goals on a wide range of topics for adults and children.
Larry Ruvo, chairman of the clinic’s fundraising arm, Keep Memory Alive, said he’s not sure whether the fundraiser will exceed its record of $27 million, but he hopes so.
The gala’s auction includes some items that only an A-lister or others with incredibly deep pockets could possibly afford. The top item was Ali’s gloves that he used to fight Floyd Patterson in 1965, a bout he won by knockout in the 12th round.
“If it’s $100, great, $100,000 would be better,” Larry King said in trying to drum up bids.
Magician David Copperfield auctioned off a four-night trip to his set of 11 private islands in the Bahamas for $300,000.
A fundraising concert featuring Kravitz, Green, guitarist Slash and others for the general public was planned in the same room Sunday night.
Boxing promoter Bob Arum said during a pre-gala reception Friday night attended by celebrities including Hopkins and Larry King that Ali will go down as one of the most important Americans in history.
“Without Muhammad Ali, there wouldn’t have been an Obama,” he said. “There wouldn’t have been a mixed-race president.”
ABC and ESPN plan to air the gala on Feb. 25.