THEY had come to pay their respects to a legend.
The "greatest" got his bus pass five years ago, but the dozens of privileged guests who gathered in Louisville, Kentucky, to celebrate Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday yesterday were not taking any chances with the man who "floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee".
As about 350 people mingled in a lobby of the Muhammad Ali Centre in Ali's hometown, he walked out to a second-floor balcony overlooking them.
The crowd began to clap and chant his name and then sang a tumultuous 'Happy Birthday'.
Mr Ali may be in the late rounds of his fight with Parkinson's disease, but to the cheering gathering he is still a knockout.
He leaned against a rail and raised his right hand to wave to the crowd.
Those gathered then headed into a banquet hall where the party was taking place.
Rocker John Mellencamp was booked to entertain the crowd, as Mr Ali turns 70 tomorrow.
The party in his beloved hometown was the first of five planned in the next couple of months.
The guest list included Mr Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, and former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, who grew up imitating the Ali shuffle.
The private party doubles as a $1,000-per-person fundraiser for the Ali Centre, the six-year-old cultural and education complex seen as a legacy to the champ's social activism.
The six-storey centre also retraces Ali's stunning career, including famous bouts against Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston.
His wife, Lonnie, said yesterday that her husband 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 as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr on January 17, 1942, Mr Ali took up boxing at age 12 when his bike was stolen and he wanted to find and whip the culprit.
Mr Ali retired from boxing in 1981 and devoted himself to his social causes.
He has travelled the world on humanitarian missions, mingling with the masses and rubbing elbows with world leaders. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W Bush in 2005.