Photo Illustration by Jeff Adamson
Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The world’s eyes will be on Muhammad Ali this Saturday in Las Vegas, as they’ve been so many times in so many places over so many years.
He’s Ali, after all. The Greatest. Civil-rights reformer, cultural icon, humanitarian, transformative sportsman, hero, “perhaps the one universally beloved figure in the U.S. today,” as Sports Illustrated described him recently.
But another treasure will be spotlighted during this weekend’s gala to celebrate Ali’s 70th birthday, and it’s so meaningful that Ali and his family are using his starpower to help raise awareness of it.
That gem is the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, the distinguished research and treatment center in downtown Las Vegas for sufferers of neurodegenerative and neuromuscular illnesses. Saturday’s Power of Love Gala, to be held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, is a benefit for the clinic and its fundraising organization, Keep Memory Alive, as well as the Muhammad Ali Center, a cultural and education complex in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Ky.
“Muhammad Ali deserves a party of parties, and that’s what he’s going to get,” said Larry Ruvo, chairman of Keep Memory Alive and founder of the clinic that is named for his father.
To have Ali and his wife, Lonnie — with world media in tow — celebrate his birthday in conjunction with the Power of Love Gala is nothing short of a “giant stamp of approval” for the brain center, Ruvo said.
The link between Ali and the Ruvo Center isn’t direct. Although he has battled Parkinson’s disease for several years, Ali doesn’t receive services from the clinic.
Yet there’s an unmistakably strong connection between the former boxing champ and the clinic.
The center is committed to treating illnesses like the one that has virtually silenced Ali and left him with severe physical limitations. It provides care for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
In another tie to Ali and the boxing world, the studies being conducted by Ruvo Center researchers include a long-term examination of boxers and mixed martial artists to gauge the effects of fighting on the brain.
In addition, researchers are developing a mouthpiece that can gauge the severity of blows to the head and transmit the data electronically, taking the guesswork out of whether an individual has suffered trauma severe enough to cause a concussion.
Had the center been doing such work during Ali’s career, who knows how his life might have been changed?
As is, Ali is helping the center, its patients and their family members — not to mention individuals who may need its services — through his participation in the gala.
The man who once playfully boasted, “I’m so mean, I make medicine sick,” is once again showing he’s really anything but menacing — displaying the compassion and courage that have helped make him one of the world’s most beloved figures.
“One day when we were together it hit me ... the courage he has showed as an older man,” former President Bill Clinton said in a recent video tribute to Ali. “Struggling with Parkinson’s, he has shown a different kind of, and perhaps a greater, courage than he showed as a young man risking having his body, face and brain battered by the shock of boxing.”
Ali’s presence guarantees a healthy boost in the Ruvo Center’s funding and provides immeasurable publicity value. Tickets for the annual gala, one of Las Vegas’ premier philanthropic events — start at $1,500, but there is sure to be more money changing hands. Several significant items — including the gloves Ali used in a title defense against Floyd Patterson in Las Vegas in 1965 — will be auctioned.
ABC will present a tape-delayed broadcast of the event at 2 p.m. Las Vegas time on Feb. 25. ESPN2 will re-air the broadcast that evening.
The guest list includes Stevie Wonder, Samuel L. Jackson, Larry King, Snoop Dogg, Cee Lo Green, Jim Brown, Anthony Hopkins, Lenny Kravitz, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Thomas Hearns, Ken Norton and Roberto Duran.
“I can’t think of a better birthday present for Muhammad Ali than giving him a chance to contribute to the treatment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and the other diseases treated at the Lou Ruvo Center, and to help find a cure,” said Las Vegas entertainment guru Bernie Yuman, who has managed Ali and is a longtime member of his inner circle.
The party brings Ali back to a place where he fought seven times, including three defenses of his heavyweight title. Those fights were against Patterson, Jerry Quarry in 1972 and Ron Lyle in 1975.
In addition, there were moments outside the ring in Las Vegas that helped create Ali’s legacy. One was his 1970s meeting with Elvis Presley, which led to the King presenting The Greatest a bejeweled robe.
Another came when Ali traveled to Las Vegas in the 1960s to mock Sonny Liston, who was training in the city.
Liston was losing at a craps table, and Ali — then Cassius Clay — shouted: “Look at the big, ugly bear; he can’t even shoot craps. He can’t do nothing right.”
But for all of Ali’s history with Vegas, boxing purists might find the city an unusual place to celebrate his legacy. His greatest fights — the trilogy against Joe Frazier, his stunning defeat of George Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight title in 1974 and his two early title fights against Liston — were in other cities. What’s more, two of Ali’s Las Vegas fights were low points near the end of his career — losses in 1978 to Leon Spinks and 1981 to Larry Holmes — when his once-legendary agility and skills had deteriorated.
But that was then. Today, Ali is waging a different kind of fight, and he’s found a passionate ally in the Ruvo Center. If Larry Ruvo has his way, Ali’s appearance will be the forerunner of even more ambitious fundraising efforts.
“I want this to be an annual telethon,” Ruvo said. “I want this to be the greatest telethon in the world.”
Oddly enough, one of the challenges Ruvo faces in making the center a household name is raising its stature in its own backyard.
Ruvo Center administrators worry that the clinic, which enjoys a worldwide reputation for excellence, is considered too elite to be accessible to local patients. The center is working with all major health insurance companies to provide access, they say, and 80 percent of its 4,500 patients to date have been from Nevada.
“If anybody thinks they can’t get in, all they’ve got to do is call,” Ruvo said. “It’s for people who have a disease. Period. It’s not a private hospital.”
Still, the clinic is tapping top-shelf medical and scientific experts. Just this month, the clinic announced that Nobel Prize recipient Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner would become chairman of its Scientific Advisory Board. Prusiner is director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases and professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.
This may explain why experts are drawn to the Ruvo Center: It is conducting more Alzheimer’s clinical trials than any other institution in the country. Of the clinic’s 20 trials, 16 are related to Alzheimer’s.
The reason for focusing on Alzheimer’s is clear: One in eight people age 65 and older will develop Alzheimer’s, and the ratio increases to nearly one in two over 85. At the current rate, someone in the United States develops the disease every 70 seconds.
Statistics like those are part of the reason Ruvo spearheaded the center, but another part is personal. His father died of Alzheimer’s in 1994, two years after Ruvo discovered that there were no viable medical options for him in Nevada.
After his difficult experience dealing with his father’s disease, Ruvo began working to create the center. Workers broke ground on the institution’s iconic, Frank Gehry-designed headquarters and medical clinic in 2006, and the center began treating patients in 2009.
Now, with a world champion serving as headliner for this year’s gala, Ruvo is ready for a world-class celebration.
“He is The Greatest of All Time,” he said, “and this is going to be the greatest birthday party of all time.”