Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 | 12:34 a.m.
Sometimes, you don’t need words to convey the message.
Fifteen minutes before midnight on a Saturday in Las Vegas was one such time.
Stevie Wonder had summoned Muhammad Ali to the MGM Grand Garden Arena stage. Wonder led the crowd in a chant, calling out, “You are the greatest! You are the greatest!” The crowd shouted back as Wonder rocked on his piano bench.
Then Wonder, a legend of contemporary music, uncorked a bounding, rendition of his “Happy Birthday” release, reaching back to 1981 for the song he used to help push through the Martin Luther King birthday national holiday. Ali listed to the tune and, ever so faintly, smiled.
That’s all we needed to see.
Ali at 70, dramatically slowed by Parkinson’s Disease but still spirited, was celebrated by several hundred attendees at the annual Keep Memory Alive “Power of Love” gala to benefit the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and, this year, the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky.
The event is always one of the year’s great galas, charity or otherwise, and this year was expected to be the city’s greatest party ever. It was shaping up as a truly heavyweight affair even early in the program, which was attended by about 1,800 people seated for dinner on the floor of the MGM Grand Garden Arena. President Barack Obama sent a message of congratulations to Ali via a taped message from Washington, calling Ali “a true champion."
“As a fighter, you were something spectacular,” Obama said. “You shocked the world, and you inspired it, too. And even after all the titles and legendary bouts, you’re still doing it.”
Ali’s birthday was Jan. 17, but he lent his still-substantial star power to draw attention to the Ruvo Center and Muhammad Ali Center, while celebrating his life and career.
A total take for the night is not yet known, but those who were seated for dinner paid $1,500 apiece for the honor of being part of the historic evening. In the past the event has surpassed $20 million in a single evening. That is how one of the world’s leading medical centers is built and supported, and a testament to the persuasive power of Ruvo, a native Las Vegan, the head of Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada and, likely, the city’s best-connected individual.
The highlight of the live auction that preceded the performances was a winning bid for the gloves worn by Ali in his 1965 title bout against Floyd Patterson by Station Casinos exec Lorenzo Fertitta. The bid was either $750,000 or upwards of $1.1, million and ended a bidding war between Fertitta and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who attempted to come in with a $1 million bid after the bidding closed (still waiting for official word on how much was paid for those gloves).
The package was presented by Ruvo, Top Rank Boxing founder and frequent Ali promoter Bob Arum and James Dundee, son of the late Angelo Dundee. The man who trained Ali throughout his career, Dundee died Feb. 1 at age 90. He was to present the gloves with Ruvo and Arum.
“Anything for charity,” Arum said from the stage. “I love the UFC!”
Sold! And congrats to Mr. Fertitta.
It was that kind of night. Thankfully, it is being recorded for both posterity and commercial consumption.
The event will be broadcast at 2 p.m. Saturday on ABC and again at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. Thus, the night was a slickly, if lengthy, showcase produced by Bill Edwards Presents.
Legendary contemporary music producer Quincy Jones made two appearances during the program. "Spent my life working with all the greats on the planet, including Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson,” Jones said. “No figure has been more towering than my brother, Muhammad Ali … Muhammad got in the ring with history and recorded a knockout, for all of us.”
In introducing Joe Perry and Rafael Saadiq for a thunderous version of Bob Dylan’s “Man of Peace,” actor Terrence Howard said, “Not only is it an honor to pay tribute to the greatest fighter in history, but to associate with a true man of peace. He stood up for what he (believed) was right. He stood up to racism and the entire government of America.”
Many who spoke from the stage noted Ali’s cultural impact, referring — often obliquely — to his stance against joining the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War for religious reasons. The film clips that played throughout the event revisited Ali’s comments that he would refuse to be sent to Vietnam to kill poor people of a darker skin color, and that, “I am only following the law, and not fighting in this war for religious reasons.”
As Evander Holyfield said, “Muhammad Ali’s greatest victories were outside the ring, in those he inspired to stand up for what they believe in.”
From Sugar Ray Leonard: “It is indeed an honor to stand in Las Vegas with these boxing champions to celebrate the greatest of all time.” He also expressed sadness at the death of Dundee, whom he said “was an asset to anyone in or out of your corner,” and recalled Dundee shouting, “You’re blowing it, kid!” as Leonard fought Tommy Hearns in 1981 in Vegas.
Performances by Kelly Rowland, Snoop Dogg, Lenny Kravitz, Chris Cornell, LL Cool J, Cee Lo Green, Slash and Dave Koz were highlights of the evening. Cee Lo, who according to my colleague Robin Leach is about to announce a headlining residency in Vegas, showed up in a none-too-demure fashion, flanked by a bevy of pink boa-donning showgirls. Sean Combs and Koz joined Wonder onstage for a star-studded finale, and Combs got the final word in from the stage when he referred to Ali as a father figure and allowed that he has Muhammad Ali’s signature tattooed across his chest.
He did not need to prove such.
The arena itself was nattily dressed for the occasion, lavishly appointed in a boxing-and-love theme, with a pair of giant boxing gloves hanging from one end of the arena floor and a pair of boxing rings flanking the main stage. White drapes hung from lighting standards around the arena, and the Grand Garden looked nothing like a busy boxing or concert venue. It was as beautiful as the 20-year-old arena has ever looked.
The performances and video clips played out on seven panels around the arena. Most of the well-heeled audience stood for most of the concert portion of the show, but there was no genuine danger of a mosh pit breaking out.
The tribute to Ali began early in the evening, as an endless barrage of knockout-caliber stars streamed into the “Power Of Love” gala.
The red carpet walk offered a wildly diverse parade of sports and entertainment stars, as well as 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, Kravitz, Combs, Anthony Hopkins, Legend, Haley Reinhart, Raphael Saadiq, Cornell, Cee Lo, 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 included 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 was the event’s emcee.
Agassi and Graf, who are aware of the power of celebrity when linked to charity events, praised Larry Ruvo, who envisioned the downtown research center named for his father.
“He’s been a leader for me from the very beginning,” said Agassi, with Graf standing 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 included 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.”