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Ali still drawing and inspiring crowds at 70

Muhammad Ali may be slowed by the ravages of his human frailty, but his star quality remains undimmed in the United States.

'The Greatest' will enjoy his 70th birthday today, with well-wishers set to turn out in their thousands in his Kentucky hometown.

He still inspires, even though his days are quiet. His wife, Lonnie, has revealed he loves watching films of his old fights, documentaries about his life and vintage Elvis movies.

Former US president Bill Clinton sums up what Ali symbolises.

"He was built like a Greek god," he said. "But he made boxing exciting for people. He made it part theatre, part dance, and all power. He was unique.

"And then he risked it all to oppose the Vietnam War. It could have destroyed him. But it didn't because people realised he was prepared to pay the price for his convictions. He could say: 'I put my life where my mouth was'.

"And there was the way he dealt with his illness. It took a sackful of guts to carry that Olympic flame (in Atlanta) up that ramp, with his hand shaking, in 1996. But he did it. The courage he showed as an older man struggling with Parkinson's was a different kind of... and perhaps a greater courage than he showed as a young man."

Those gathered in Louisville chanted "Ali, Ali..." in a lobby of the Muhammad Ali Center as four days of festivities were launched last weekend, the man himself waving from a second-floor balcony. Then he joined 350 guests for a private party which doubled as a $1,000-per-person fund-raiser for the Ali Center, a six-year-old cultural and education complex designed to be a legacy to his social activism, as well as a celebration of his career.

George Foreman, whose epic duel with Ali helped define both men's careers, said he believes that there should be a special day to celebrate his old foe's greatness. "There should be Muhammad Ali Day in America, because he will go down as one of the great American heroes," he said.

Foreman was at the dinner, as was Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee and three American hikers, who were imprisoned in Iran. Ali, perhaps the most prominent US Muslim, lobbied for their release.

Dundee (91), who travelled from Florida for the celebration, said he hears from Ali about once a month.

"We're like 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'."

Lonnie 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. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent