Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012 | 9:10 p.m.
The tribute to Muhammad Ali was an endless barrage of knockout blows at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night as the stars streamed into the Keep Memory Alive Power Of Love gala.
The event was expected to be the city’s greatest party, and it was shaping up to be a truly heavyweight affair. Early in the program, attended by about 1,800 people seated for dinner on the floor of the Grand Garden Arena, President Barack Obama sent a message of congratulations to Ali via a taped message from Washington, calling Ali, “A true champion,” on the event of his 70th birthday.
Ali’s birthday was actually Jan. 17, but lent his ample star power to draw attention to the Lou Ruvo Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health and his own Muhammad Ali Center to celebrate his life and career Saturday.
The red carpet walk offered a wildly diverse parade of sports and entertainment stars, and also several members of Ali’s family. The advance official list of those expected to attend were Stevie Wonder, Samuel L. Jackson, David Beckham, Larry King, Ken Jeong, Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J, Common, Lenny Kravitz, Sean Combs, Anthony Hopkins, John Legend, Haley Reinhart, Raphael Saadiq, Chris Cornell, Cee Lo Green, Joe Perry, Slash, Terrence Howard, David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy, Andre Agassi, Stefanie Graf, Jim Brown, Randy Couture, Brad Garrett, Kelly Rowland, Dave Koz, James Gandolfini, Steve Schirripa, Chazz Palminteri and Sammy Hagar. Former boxing champs scheduled to attend the celebration include Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and Tommy "Hitman" Hearns. Many of those stars walked the red carpet before the show. Vegas Deluxe columnist Robin Leach served as the event’s emcee. The event will be broadcast next Saturday on ABC at 2 p.m. on and again on ESPN2 at 7 p.m.
Agassi and Graf, who are acutely aware of the power of celebrity when linked to charity events, praised Larry Ruvo, who envisioned the center named for his father.
“He’s been a leader for me from the very beginning,” said Agassi, with Graf standing close by his side. “First of all, his involvement in my own foundation (the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education) has been a huge reason for its success. But tonight, this blows all the others away. Forget it, this redefines what we can do in Las Vegas. It’s incredible.”
Siegfried & Roy walked the carpet at the tail end of the star promenade. They were the stars of the Power of Love event in 2009, which marked their performance that served as both an onstage reunion and send-off appearance.
“We’ve known Muhammad for many years, many many years,” Siegfried said. “We have known him since we started in Las Vegas.”
“It was 1967,” added Roy, who took the walk with some aid from his longtime friend and partner. “He loves magic and came to see us many times.”
Ali’s daughter Rasheda said there is still hope for the health of her father, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984.
“There have been so many medical advances made at places like the Cleveland Clinic, for all brain diseases and disorders,” she said. “There has to be hope for my father. I am hopeful that stem-cell research, which is an issue that has a lot of debate, can help those who are suffering like my father.”
“We are here to celebrate a great athlete and a great man,” former NFL great Jim Brown said. “He not only stood up to, and beat, his opponents, but he stood up for what he believed in. We are here to tell him it was right for him to do that and to offer our love and support.”
Before hitting the floor, Ruvo’s face was a mix of excitement and astonishment.
“I am flabbergasted,” he said. “I walked through, and I am very rarely ever flabbergasted, but I don’t know any other word to describe it, or to explain what is going on. The MGM Grand team, the celebrities, the people who have helped us, it’s quite remarkable. I am flabbergasted. … I think this party, tonight, is going to be the greatest of all time.”
When asked if there was anyone on his wish list he did not lure to the show, Ruvo paused and said, “We got everybody we wanted except, my biggest disappointment, was a man who was going to help me with an auction item tonight. We had some surprises, and regrettably Angelo Dundee could not be here.”
Dundee, who died Feb. 1 at age 90, was Ali’s trainer throughout the great heavyweight’s two-decade career.
“Angelo donated something last month, in Louisville with me, and I got a great photo of him and I with the champ,” Ruvo said. “Regrettably, he’s the only one not here who we wanted to be here.”