Muhammad Ali cheered at 70th birthday bash in Ky.

Muhammad Ali soaked in familiar cheers and chants along with a

rendition of ”Happy Birthday” on Saturday as friends and admirers

celebrated the boxing champion’s coming 70th birthday at a party in

his hometown.

As party-goers mingled in a lobby of the Muhammad Ali Center

before the party, Ali walked slowly to a second-floor balcony

overlooking them. The crowd immediately began to clap, then broke

into chants of ”Ali! Ali!” followed by singing as Ali watched for

about two minutes.

The three-time world heavyweight champion, who is afflicted by

Parkinson’s disease, leaned against a rail and raised his right

hand to wave to the crowd. Ali walked on his own but was at times

assisted by his wife, Lonnie, and his sister-in-law. After the

brief appearance, Ali went to his party.

Former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis said his boyhood idol

is ”still the greatest.”

”I feel so proud and honored that we’re able to show our

feelings and show our support for him,” Lewis said.

Lewis said Ali’s strength and influence extended far beyond the

boxing ring in his humanitarian efforts.

”What he’s done outside the ring – just the bravery, the poise,

the feeling, the sacrifice,” Lewis said ”… He’s truly a great

man.”

The guest list numbered 350 for the private party, which doubled

as a $1,000-per-person fundraiser for the Ali Center, the

six-year-old cultural and education complex designed to be a legacy

to his social activism. The six-story center also retraces Ali’s

career, including his epic bouts against Joe Frazier, George

Foreman and Sonny Liston.

Guests paid tribute to Ali beforehand.

”The reason I loved him is because of his confidence,”

University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari said.

”He would talk and then back it up. He had great courage and who

had more fun than him?”

The guest list also included Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee and

three American hikers who were imprisoned in Iran. Ali, perhaps the

most prominent U.S. Muslim, lobbied for their release. Rocker John

Mellencamp headlined the entertainment.

Ali turns 70 on Tuesday, and the party in his hometown is the

first of five planned in the next few months.

The self-proclaimed ”Greatest of All Time” remains one of the

world’s most recognizable figures, even though he’s been largely

absent from the public eye recently due to Parkinson’s disease.

Lonnie Ali said Friday 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 Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, Ali took up

boxing at age 12, when his bike was stolen and he wanted to find

and punish the culprit.Ali was introduced to Joe Martin, a police

officer who coached boxing at a local gym.

Ali’s brother, 68-year-old Rahaman Ali, said the champion was

cheerful and happy as a youngster.

”As a little boy he (said) he would be the world’s greatest

fighter and be a great man,” he said.

Ali flourished in the ring, becoming a top amateur and Olympic

gold medalist. He made his professional debut in Louisville and

arranged for a local children’s hospital to receive proceeds from

the fight.

Lewis said Ali ranks as the greatest of heavyweights, and he

said he was inspired by Ali’s fights.

”I used to get mad if I didn’t see the Ali shuffle,” Lewis

said. ”So I was always watching him, expecting some type of

antic.”

Ali won the heavyweight title in 1964, defeating the heavily

favored Sonny Liston. Soon after, Ali – who was raised in a Baptist

family – announced his conversion to Islam and changed his

name.

While in his prime, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight crown in

1967 for refusing to be drafted for military service during the

Vietnam War. He cited his religious beliefs as the reason for his

refusal.

His decision alienated Ali from many across the U.S. and

resulted in a draft-evasion conviction. Ali found himself embroiled

in a long legal fight that ended in 1971, when the U.S. Supreme

Court ruled in his favor.

Ali lost his first bid to regain the heavyweight crown when

Frazier knocked him down and took a decision in the ”Fight of the

Century” at Madison Square Garden in 1971.

Ali regained the heavyweight title in 1974, defeating Foreman in

the ”Rumble in the Jungle.” A year later, he outlasted Frazier in

the epic ”Thrilla in Manila” bout.

Last year, a frail Ali rose from his seat and clapped for his

deceased rival at Frazier’s funeral.

Ali’s last title came in 1978 when he defeated Leon Spinks.

Ali retired from boxing in 1981 and devoted himself to social

causes. He traveled the world on humanitarian missions, mingling

with the masses and rubbing elbows with world leaders. Ali received

the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in

2005.