Ailing boxing legend Muhammad Ali swapped wisecracks with President George W. Bush in his first public appearance in five months which dispelled recent fears over his health.

Ali, 63, went to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, from Bush.

He appeared weak from his longstanding battle against Parkinson's Disease but attentive throughout the ceremony in the East Room of the White House, applauding each recipient.

Ali made no public comment, but stood up unaided for the presentation to him by Bush. The former world heavyweight champion stood next to the president and unbuttoned his jacket as a plaque honouring him was read.

Bush then tied the medal around Ali's neck and made a private comment to him. Ali responded and pointed a finger to his head and twirled it in a gesture which drew laughter from the invitation-only audience.

It was Ali's first public appearance in five months. The last was also in Washington when he watched his daughter Leila Ali fight in a women's boxing bout.

Parkinson's Disease has severely reduced Ali's speech and movement, but his family has strongly denied recent reports that the boxing legend may be close to death.