New York - A casino owner has paid more than $1 million (nearly R8 million) for gloves Muhammad Ali once used to defend his world heavyweight title.
It happened in Las Vegas on Saturday night during a gala dinner to celebrate Ali’s life and to raise money for brain research.
Samuel L Jackson dedicated a rendition of Stand By Me to the former heavyweight champion. And president Barack Obama told Ali in a birthday tribute that he had inspired the world.
By the end of the night, all Ali had to do to capture the hearts of 2 000 revellers in Las Vegas was go onstage and smile.
Ali sat next to Stevie Wonder, who played keyboards and sang Happy Birthday.
Sean "Diddy" Combs, Kelly Rowland, LL Cool J, Quincy Jones, Sugar Ray Leonard and promoter Bob Arum sang along.
Combs pinched Ali's cheeks and whispered in his ear, then closed out the nearly 5-hour gala by professing his deep admiration for the fighter.
Ali's eyes widened. He pointed at Combs, then back at his own head, twirling his index finger as if to tell Combs he's crazy.
"The greatest of all time," Combs said after leading the crowd in shouting “Happy birthday, Ali."
The moment closed the celebration of Ali's life and the fundraiser to generate millions of dollars for brain research, a mission Ali's family says is important to him in part because of his nearly 30-year battle with Parkinson's disease.
"Happy birthday, champ," Obama told Ali through a video message, saying he wished he could have attended the swanky dinner gala in Las Vegas, attended by some of the biggest names in sports, film, television and music.
"As a fighter, you were something spectacular," Obama told Ali, who turned 70 last month. "You shocked the world, and you inspired it, too. And even after all the titles and legendary bouts, you're still doing it."
A set of gloves Ali used to defeat Floyd Patterson in 1965 in Las Vegas – the first heavyweight title fight in the city – was sold for $1.1 million.
It came with one of the original posters used to promote the fight, which had Muhammad Ali's chosen name as a subscript to Cassius Clay, his birth name.
Ali entered the room and sat at a table with his family before bidding began on the gloves.
Lorenzo Fertitta, a casino owner and owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts league, bought the gloves, which organisers had said earlier they hoped would fetch $500 000.
Football great Jim Brown said Ali represented the greatest of America, because at one time people only recognised his athletic ability and didn't like what he had to say. That changed over time, he said.
"America started with slavery and ended up with a black president," Brown said. "Muhammad Ali was a part of that ... a big part."
Ali's wife, Lonnie, told the crowd that her husband's greatest wish had always been to inspire and help others. She said he felt his life really began when he retired from the ring.
"Muhammad's gift of inspiration is timeless, and now more relevant than ever," she said after being introduced by music icon Quincy Jones.
Lonnie Ali introduced a video montage of her husband's life, including clips from his work with children.
"People look for miracles, people look for wonders, people expect surprises of all kinds," Ali said in the video. "Yet the greatest wonder, the greatest miracle, the greatest surprise is to be found in one's heart."
Guests arriving on the red carpet included football great Franco Harris, supermodel Cindy Crawford, acting star Jackson, Ali's children and grandchildren, and Chuck Wepner, who lost to Ali in 1975 in a bout for the heavyweight title.
"I would go anywhere in the world for Muhammad Ali's birthday," Wepner said.
The gala, with tickets starting at $1 500 per person, was held at the MGM Grand, the venue for many major fights during the past two decades.
Famous people converged on the 160 tables adjacent to two rings and a stage. Terrence Howard, David Beckham, Anthony Hopkins, Manny Pacquiao and Lenny Kravitz were among them.
They spoke and performed in tribute to a fighter who had won 56 and lost 5 of his professional fights and who finished with 37 knockouts.
Ali became perhaps the most famous athlete in history because of his personality and willingness to stand up publicly for his beliefs.
"He's done it with guts and grace, with his fists, and with his wits," Jackson said. "He's one of the groundbreaking figures of the generation that helped make the world a more open place. Thank you, champ."
Wonder, who had earlier performed at Whitney Houston's funeral in Newark, New Jersey, performed Keep Our Love Alive and Superstition. Rasheda Ali said Wonder was the performer her father was most looking forward to seeing.
Snoop Dogg sang a medley of his hits, John Legend, Kravitz, Slash, Kelly Rowland and Cee Lo Green all performed.
LL Cool J rapped Mama Said Knock You Out as DJ Z-Trip spun a remixed version of the song that included Ali audio, including his famous "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" quote.
Tennis great Andre Agassi said Ali had shown the world that each person has a duty, regardless of their occupation, to live for more than him or herself and help others.
"What he did with his platform was unparalleled. The impact he's had as a result, we still feel to this day, which is why we're all out here tonight," Agassi said.
The gala raised funds for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Centre for Brain Health and the Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, Kentucky, a cultural attraction that celebrates Ali's life and pushes educational goals on a wide range of topics for adults and children.
Larry Ruvo, chairman of the clinic's fundraising arm, Keep Memory Alive, said he was not sure whether the fundraiser would exceed its record of $27 million, but he hoped so.
The auction included items that only an A-lister or others with deep pockets could afford. The top item was Ali's gloves that he used to fight Floyd Patterson in 1965, a bout he won by knockout in the 12th round.
"If it's $100, great, $100 000 would be better," Larry King said in trying to drum up bids.
Magician David Copperfield auctioned off a four-night trip to his set of 11 private islands in the Bahamas for $300 000.
A fundraising concert featuring Kravitz, Green, guitarist Slash and others for the general public was held the same room on Sunday night.