Ali & Obama Share A "Fighting Spirit"

Muhammad Ali, left, is honored at the inaugural Bluegrass Ball as his wife Lonnie Ali looks on Monday, Jan. 19, 2009, in Washington.
AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez
"The Greatest" saluted the nation's first black president at an inaugural soiree Monday night.

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, celebrating his 67th birthday, was the guest of honor at a party for 1,400 that included other celebrities, lawmakers and native Kentuckians.

Ali will be sitting on the platform Tuesday when Barack Obama is sworn in as the nation's first black president. And when that happens, Ali's wife predicts, a torch will have been passed.

"He wouldn't have missed this for the world," Lonnie Ali said after Monday night's Bluegrass Ball, a celebration of her husband's 67th birthday. The former heavyweight champion was born in Louisville, Kentucky.

Muhammad Ali carried the dreams of a generation during his prime as an athlete, and later as a humanitarian.

"What's interesting is that Muhammad had time to grow into his role as being a world humanitarian," Lonnie Ali said. President Obama on the other hand "will inherit the world on his shoulders, not just the U.S. And it is a much heavier burden than I think Muhammad had to face.

"But I think his (Mr. Obama's) shoulders are broad," she added. "He and Muhammad are really made of the same fabric."

Ali, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, was the guest of honor at the Bluegrass Ball, which was studded with other celebrities as well.

Native Kentuckian and actress Ashley Judd and artist Simon Bull unveiled a birthday gift to Ali - a pair of portraits of the boxer and President Obama.

The two appear in the painting depicting a close-up of Mr. Obama's face looking off into the distance. Within the boundaries of the new president's visage is a depiction of Ali as a boxer gazing over a fallen opponent - signifying a debt that Barack Obama owes Ali and his fighting spirit, according to a release by the Muhammad Ali Center, which commissioned the portraits.

"You've got Barack Obama, who's the leader of the greatest nation on earth, and Muhammad Ali, who's the greatest of all time," mused Steve Buttleman, official bugler of Churchill Downs race track. "How appropriate is that? It's so fitting."

There was agreement from the mistress of ceremonies, Phyllis George, a former Miss America and Kentucky first lady:

"The seriousness of what they've both done in their lives and how they've both brought people together, I'm just very proud to be a part of it," George said.

There's one thing that Mr. Obama holds over Ali, though, Lonnie Ali said. Obama's now probably more recognizable to more people around the world.

"I do believe you've been surpassed," Lonnie Ali said she told her husband.

By Laurie Kellman