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Photos: Ali’s 70th birthday and Keep Memory Alive gala hailed as biggest and best ever


Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Keep Memory Alive

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali and his wife Lonnie Ali appear onstage during Keep Memory Alive’s “Power of Love Gala” celebrating Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012. The event benefits the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Muhammad Ali Center.

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Post-production editing and voice-over recordings got underway this morning on the monumental task of cutting the six-hour Muhammad Ali 70th birthday gala Saturday night to the two-hour ABC special that will air this Saturday with a same-night re-broadcast on ESPN 2.

There was consensus that the star-studded party and music extravaganza was the biggest and best ever presented in Las Vegas. The early cocktail party began at 5:30 p.m. and the show wrapped nearing midnight. “This blows everything else away,” tennis legend and Las Vegas resident Andre Agassi said. “This redefines what we can do in Vegas. It’s incredible and will have a global impact.”

MGM Grand Garden Arena was so magnificently transformed into a fight-themed ballroom that one couldn’t imagine it ever being a 20-year-old music and sports venue. Giant red boxing gloves hung from the ceiling, and onstage and at every table, red gloves held the centerpiece vase of flowers, too.

The fundraiser was for Keep Memory Alive that raises funds to support the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. It also raised $1 million for the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. The world heavyweight champion has battled Parkinson’s disease since 1984. Although it’s difficult not to think of the challenges he faces, the highlight of the night was seeing him break into a smile not once but several times. There is no cure for the debilitating brain disease.

His “frozen in time” look changed when he sat at his table after a golf-cart ride from the Mansion of MGM Grand. He smiled as Snoop Dogg rapped his “Ali Is the Greatest” chant. He smiled onstage during the giant birthday cake presentation. He smiled as Stevie Wonder played “Happy Birthday” as red-and-white heart-shaped confetti rained down on him. And he smiled yet again when Sean “Diddy” Combs mischievously kissed his cheek.

When you watch that music finale on Saturday’s telecast, look carefully at Ali’s eyes. They come to life in an extraordinary twinkling, and it’s the closing shot that will forever sear your mind as he looks directly into the camera with a warm, knowing look of appreciation. It’s truly a remarkable moment and something absolutely wonderful captured on camera.

I had the honor and privilege playing off-camera MC and announcer for the tribute that ran just short of six hours. The stars didn’t stay in their dressing rooms or hang out in the green room. They wanted in on the action backstage, and it was quite the sight to see celebrities pulling out cell phones to take photos with the legendary boxers and chefs Wolfgang Puck, Tom Colicchio, Michael Mina and Scott Conant, who supervised a kitchen crew of more than 1,000 to serve a four-course gourmet meal for some 2,000 guests.

Stars and boxers alike happily signed a white guitar that was auctioned for more charity funds. Posing for one another backstage: James Bond villain Robert Davi, who opens in a Frank Sinatra concert at the Venetian on Thursday, magician David Copperfield, boxer George Foreman and TV host Andrew Zimmern from “Bizarre Foods,” who had his camera crew there to film the kitchen activity.

With everything that could have gone wrong, it’s a pleasure to say that it went off without a hitch. Wonder and Diddy arrived on a private jet from Newark, N.J., after performing at Whitney Houston’s funeral. It was a “minutes to spare” situation, but thanks to the Newark police chief who cleared their traffic route and MGM Grand so close to McCarran Airport, they went onstage on time without a rehearsal and performed flawlessly -- with cameras recording it all.

It was a long day for both, and even after the Ali party, Diddy performed for an hour with Lenny Kravitz and Common at the new 1OAK in the Mirage. Wonder and a group of friends dine at Tao in the Venetian at midnight!

Even Ali managed to slip out, bypassing a party for NFL legend Jim Brown so that he could get his favorite dish, cream of chicken soup, at the Golden Steer, the oldest steakhouse in Las Vegas, just off the Strip on Sahara. My culinary chum John Curtas told me that the owners will now name a celebrity booth after Ali that puts him in the company of many legendary Las Vegas names. Ali also appeared in a boxing ring in the MGM lobby for another birthday cake presentation before leaving town Sunday.

You’d think after six hours of fine food, wondrous wines and Dom Perignon, people would be ready for slumber. But this was such a magical night where the music never stopped and the fun never ended, and there was an after-party and even after that Wolfgang Puck hosted a group at his Bar and Grill in MGM Grand that included Kravitz, David Copperfield, Quincy Jones, Terrence Howard and Larenz Tate.

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Golden Steer

Guests flew in from all over the world, many on private jets I’ve since dubbed Ali Airlines. Manny Pacquiao flew in from the Philippines. Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin’s widow, Terry, flew in from Australia to help sell a Down Under auction travel item that raised $150,000. Fighter Chuck Wepner said he would have flown anywhere in the world to be with Ali on this night.

President Obama “flew in” via satellite with a special video message for Ali, heralding him as “a true champion.” Said Obama: “Happy Birthday, champ. I wished I could be there with you. You shocked the world, and you inspired it, too. Even after all the titles and legendary bouts, you’re still doing it.” Ali had a record of 56-5 with 37 knockouts.

Closest to home were Agassi and Stefanie Graff, who twice sold private tennis lessons at $100,000 each, one to Kentucky Derby winner Bruce Zoldan, the owner of Animal Kingdom. He donated two finish line Turf Club seats for this year’s Derby, and that was snapped up for $170,000. Copperfield sold a four-day trip to his islands Musha Cay in the Bahamas for $300,000, and hotel tycoon Steve Wynn paid $80,000 for a dinner party with music stars at Jones’ California home.

A 2013 limited-edition Mercedes went for $525,000, hair king John Paul DeJoria’s private train trip to his Patron headquarters drew $220,000, and, as we reported today, Cee Lo Green raised $250,000 for tickets to meet him backstage at “The Voice” with his fellow NBC TV judges. A lunch with Sir Michael Caine in London tied to the opening party of Britain’s Top Shops here at Fashion Show next month raised $70,000. Chef Emeril Lagasse, who flew in from New Orleans, sold a weekend in Lake Tahoe with his cooking to three rival bidders at $50,000 each.

But it was the emotional moments at the end of the auction that proved staggering. Fight promoter Bob Arum promised four ringside tickets to the June 9 Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley welterweight title fight and Manny’s autographed boxing gloves afterward, and for the winning bidder to go into the ring to announce one of the undercard fights. That raised $200,000. “Ali is the greatest fighter ever,” said Pacquiao, who is rumored to be retiring after the bout.

Then Jimmy Dundee, the son of Ali’s longtime trainer Angelo Dundee, presented Ali’s autographed gloves from his November 1965 Las Vegas win over two-time world champion Floyd Patterson. Angelo had wanted to attend the Ali gala, but he died Feb. 1 at 90, so Jimmy fulfilled the wish. In frenzied bidding against Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who increased it to a cool $1 million, the gloves were won by UFC and Station Casinos chieftain Lorenzo Fertitta for $1.1 million, but not until he got fight rival Arum to do a UFC shout-out.

“Anything for charity,” Arum smiled. ”I love the UFC!”

Be sure to check out Senior Editor John Katsilometes’ coverage of the gala, as well as the Las Vegas Sun’s special section of the Ruvo-Ali extravaganza.

Other backstage action from my reporter’s notebook:

Diddy proudly showed a tattoo of Ali’s signature that he has on his chest.

Siegfried & Roy revealed that when they performed in Las Vegas in the 1960s, Ali, a big magic fan, often came to see their show. Copperfield confirmed that Ali often met him backstage at his shows, too, and was able to perform a levitation.

Larry King, who first saw Ali fight in the 1960 Rome Olympics, became friends with the fighter, who hosted one of his book launch parties.

When I talked with Jones about the London auction item with my pal Michael Caine, he reminded they were kindred spirits born on the same day -- March 14.

Agassi said that Ali had visited the students of his Agassi Preparatory Academy here several times.

Evander Holyfield, who asked me to take a photograph with him, said their friendship was cemented at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when he wanted to carry the Olympic torch, but officials rejected the request. At the last minute, they changed their minds and he carried it, only to find Ali waiting to light the flame. “We were both there with the torch,” he smiled.

Here is who you will see on the telecast on ABC on Saturday at 2 p.m. and ESPN 2 at 7 p.m.: Ali, Holyfield, Pacquiao, Wepner, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Mancini, George Chuvalo, Ken Norton, Tommy Hearns, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks, Jones, King, Diddy, Jackson, Howard, Common, David Beckham, Cindy Crawford, Ken Jeong, Chris Isaak and Ne-Yo.

Plus, knockout musical performances by Wonder, Legend, Slash, Snoop Dogg, Green and the “Jubilee!” dancers, Joe Perry, Kravitz, Rowland, Raphael Saadiq, Chris Cornell, Myles Kennedy, Haley Reinhart, Dave Koz and LL Cool J, who rapped “Mama Said Knock You Out” in a white boxing robe.

Two people summed up the night best. Organizer Larry Ruvo said: “I am flabbergasted. I am rarely ever flabbergasted. It was the greatest of all time. The biggest night I can ever remember in Vegas, and I’ve lived here all my life.”

Wife Lonnie Ali closed: “His greatest wish was always to inspire and help others. His life really began when he retired from the ring. His gift is timeless and now more relevant than ever.”

With the Ali event now in the history books and joining the successes of Keep Memory Alive galas with Siegfried & Roy’s triumphant magic return, Barry Manilow and Celine Dion, how could this be topped next year? I can reveal that there’s a plan already in discussion that might involve Quincy Jones.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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