As about 350 people mingled in a lobby of the Muhammad Ali Center, he walked out to a second-floor balcony overlooking them. The crowd immediately began to clap, then chanted and sang while he stood and watched for about two minutes.

“The reason I loved him is because of his confidence,” University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari said of Ali. “He would talk and then back it up. He had great courage and who had more fun than him?”

Ali turns 70 on Tuesday, and the party in his hometown is the first of five planned in the next couple of months. Not long after Ali’s appearance on the balcony, the crowd began filing into a banquet hall for the party that’s closed to the public and reporters.

The private party doubles as a $1000-per-person fundraiser for the Ali Center, the six-year-old cultural and education complex seen as a legacy to the champ’s social activism.

The self-proclaimed “greatest of all time” remains one of the world’s most recognisable figures, even though he’s largely absent from the public eye as he battles Parkinson’s disease. When he came out to the balcony on Saturday, he walked and stood unassisted.

Ali’s wife Lonnie said on Friday her husband has mixed feelings about the landmark birthday.

“He’s glad he’s here to turn 70, but he wants to be reassured he doesn’t look 70,” she said.

Born as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr on January 17 in 1942, Ali took up boxing at age 12 when his bike was stolen and he wanted to find and whip the culprit. The boy was introduced to Joe Martin, a police officer who coached boxing at a local gym.

Ali’s brother, 68-year-old Rahaman, recalled that the champ was cheerful and happy as a youngster.

“As a little boy, he (said) he would be the world’s greatest fighter and be a great man,” he said.

Brian Reade, one of the last journalists to interview Ali before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, wrte a moving tribute to the boxer in today’s Daily Mirror.

“When writer Norman Mailer called him “the very spirit of the 20th century” he was right. That hundred years threw up many greats: Einstein, Churchill, Presley, Lennon, Eisenhower, Pele, Mother Teresa, Superman… But next to Ali they wilt,” Reade wrote.

“They couldn’t hit like him, dance like him, look like him, rap like him, crack a one-liner like him, take a stand like him, come back like him. They didn’t possess his magic.

“Lennon may have written the ultimate song about peace but he couldn’t do what Ali did: refuse to go to war as it offended his beliefs. He couldn’t say: ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me a n*****’.

“That wasn’t just the greatest pacifist slogan of all time, it was the greatest ­anti-racist one, summing up the futility of an imperial war and the oppression of the black man. Only Muhammad Ali – shackled twice with his slave name Clay and a demand to be drafted into the army and who twice broke free – could say it.”