"People don't realize what they had till it's gone. Like President Kennedy, there was no one like him, the Beatles and my man, Elvis Presley. I was the Elvis of boxing."
-- Muhammad Ali after retiring from boxing in 1981
It was an hour before Evander Holyfield's championship match with Buster Douglas at the Mirage in Las Vegas, but a low roar was already building.
A familiar face had been spotted. The man was making his way to a ringside seat. His gait was slow and his face slightly puffy, but the smile was still radiant, as the crowd began to chant, "Ali, Ali, Ali." The cheering lasted for several minutes until Muhammad Ali waved his hand, silencing the crowd like a conductor preparing his orchestra.
"It's still exhilarating," Ali said later. "It shows people still remember and care."
The cheers come less frequently now for Ali, who turns 50 today. He spends most of his days living in relative tranquility on his horse farm in Berrien Springs, Mich., with his fourth wife, Lonnie.
The three-time heavyweight champion, who dominated the boxing scene for close to two decades with his unique ring gifts and magnetic personality, no longer floats like a butterfly. The feet that once danced the Ali Shuffle now move deliberately, and his speech is slurred by Parkinson's syndrome, a nerve disorder.
He spends most of the day praying, reading the Koran and propagating his Islamic faith by signing hundreds of religious tracts for worldwide distribution.
It is a far cry from his tumultuous times in the 1960s and '70s, when he might have been the world's most recognizable face, known to more people than Presley or the pope, but always an enigma. For Muhammad Ali was always bigger than life -- part fact, part myth.
Norman Mailer once wrote: "He is fascinating -- attraction and repulsion in the same package. He is America's Greatest Ego. But he is also the very spirit of the 20th century, the prince of mass man and the media."
If the heavyweight champion ideal was Joe Louis -- possessing a mighty punch in the ring, but walking softly outside it -- Ali turned the model upside down. Using his title as a bully pulpit, he forced people to choose sides -- lecturing the American public on Vietnam, racism, sexism and the emerging Third World nations.
He became a symbol of America's rage in the '60s, most notably a hero of the anti-war movement after his draft rebuff -- "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" -- led to the stripping of his heavyweight title in 1967 and a three-year exile from the ring.
He could be a braggart spouting doggerel, but he was also a handsome, brilliant boxer framed in bombast.
At his worst, he would bully and torment a less-gifted opponent such as Floyd Patterson, and label rivals "Uncle Tom," "The Gorilla," "The Mummy" and "The Washerwoman."
But free from the cameras, he was a gentle, sentimental soul who privately would contribute to save a punch-drunk ex-fighter from the poorhouse or rescue a Jewish home for the aged from bankruptcy.
Always, there was that touch of craziness, such as his manic tirade before lifting the heavyweight crown from fearsome Sonny Liston in 1964. Prophet or fool?
"I know some guys in Louisville [Ky.] who used to give me a lift to the gym when my scooter broke down. Now, they say they made me. Then my daddy says, 'Don't listen to those boys; I made you.' But who made me is me."
-- Ali, in 1960
Jimmy Ellis, a fellow native of Louisville, repeatedly would touch Ali's life, first as an amateur foe, then as the man who replaced him as heavyweight champion during Ali's political exile, next as a knockout victim in 1971 and, finally, as his sparring partner and camp confidant.
"I'm two years older than Ali," said Ellis, a recreation supervisor in Louisville, "but we started boxing the same year -- 1957 -- and it was all because he had whipped my best friend, Duane Howell, on TV.
"I watched the fight, and when Duane came home, I asked him, 'How could you let that chump beat you?' I could kick his butt any day of the week.
"I was just bragging to impress my girlfriend. But Duane made me join him in the gym. In my third amateur fight, they matched me against Ali, and he beat me. We fought again at my gym on the east side, and I got even. After that, we became close. Later on, whenever I was hurting financially, he'd help me out.
"But there was only one Ali. People don't realize it, but way back in the amateurs, he was predicting what round he'd end the fight.
"People always underestimated his ability because he defied the rules. But he would watch or spar with every champion or name fighter who came through town, and borrow a little of this and that, and everything he did worked for him.
Angelo Dundee, a renowned fight trainer, first met Ali in 1957 and after the 1960 Olympics was invited by the Louisville syndicate that launched his professional career to become Ali's mentor.