LAS VEGAS – They gathered in the bowels of the arena where most of the great fights of the last two decades have taken place, old men now all sharing one shining moment from years gone by. They had come to honor The Greatest, though whether Muhammad Ali remembered who they were or knew what it was all about was a matter of speculation that on this night would go unanswered.
Some, like Chuck Wepner, couldn't stop talking about the night they won their own personal lottery — a spot across the ring from Ali. Nothing new there, since the Bayonne Bleeder has been talking about it to anyone else who will listen almost every day since.
Others, like Leon Spinks, weren't able to talk much at all.
"Leon Spinks is here and he needs help," Wepner said. "There are a lot of fighters who need help."
This was a night supposed to bring that help, both to fighters like Spinks and those fighting today. Millions would be raised in Ali's name for the Cleveland Clinic's new Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in downtown Las Vegas, where researchers are already busy trying to unlock the puzzles of damage to the human brain.
A seat for dinner and the show at the MGM Grand hotel started at $1,500. UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta spent $1.1 million in an auction for the gloves Ali used against Floyd Patterson in 1965 in the first heavyweight title fight in a city that would become synonymous with boxing. President Barack Obama wished Ali well in a video greeting, and Stevie Wonder was among those on hand to sing birthday wishes to the former heavyweight champion, who turned 70 last month.
At the center of it all was an elderly man, mute and his face seemingly frozen as he sat at a table with his wife, Lonnie, and several other family members. Whether boxing caused Ali's Parkinson's is the subject of debate, but it was clear on this night the disease he has fought for three decades has taken a terrible toll on him.
He was once a magnificent man with a sculptured body and a mouth that wouldn't stay shut. He's still magnificent in the way that his very presence envelopes and engulfs an arena like it did Saturday night, hushing high-rollers and the elite of this gambling town in a way no other man could — and all without saying a word.
They used to trot Joe Louis out like this in his final years, too, a heavyweight great and an American hero reduced to drooling in his wheelchair at ringside. With Ali, though, it seems different in a way if only because you get the feeling that the man who was the ultimate people person still enjoys being around people.
"I'm not sad about him, just proud to know him," George Foreman said. "When people ask me if he's the greatest boxer ever, it's an insult. He was the greatest everything, just a great man."
Foreman lost the biggest fight of his life to Ali, the stunner in Zaire that cost him the heavyweight title and for a long time derailed his life. He held a grudge for a long time, too, but it's hard to be mad at Muhammad Ali no matter what he did to you in the ring.
Ali was back in a makeshift ring on Sunday in the lobby of the MGM, where hundreds of people crowded around to share birthday cake and sing "Happy Birthday" to him. This was a chance for his people — the common people — to get close enough to take a photo and the buzz in the crowd grew as Ali arrived in a golf cart and was helped up a few steps into the ring.
The expression on his face never changed as his former business manager, Gene Kilroy, called Ali's family and friends up in the ring to be with him. Moon walker Buzz Aldrin and singer Kris Kristofferson were among the notables, while Spinks and Evander Holyfield also joined him. Lonnie took off his sunglasses and gave him a fork, and everyone watched as Ali concentrated as hard on the task at hand — getting some of the chocolate cake in his mouth — as he ever had fighting Foreman in Africa.
A few of his daughters hovered around, and grandbabies were put in his lap. Then, with Holyfield holding him by one arm and his wife by the other, Ali made a slow, trembling, walk around the ring, holding his right arm up waist high to salute the cheers from the crowd.
Doctors say not many people survive 30 years of Parkinson's, a debilitating brain disease for which there is no cure. That Ali has lasted this long is, perhaps, a tribute to the great athleticism that served him so well in the ring. Still, the death of his trainer, Angelo Dundee, a few weeks ago and Joe Frazier a few months before that is a reminder that even The Greatest has a limited time on Earth.
That seemed to be on the mind of many bunched around the ring in the lobby, holding cell phones aloft in hopes of getting a picture they could show the people back home. The excitement of being so close to Ali was tempered by the reality of how he looked and the difficulty he had trying to get even one bite of frosting in his mouth.
Still they cheered his victory lap around the ring, and then watched as Holyfield and others helped him down the few steps toward the golf cart. Before he got in, though, he spotted a little girl in her mother's arms and made a playful little move toward her like he had done thousands of times over to babies throughout his career.
As if we needed a reminder that he is indeed The Greatest.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg