Ali's charm and wit haven't lost a step Ex-champ still captivates his audience for a cause


His world-famous face is puffy, his step is slow and his speech slightly slurred. But Muhammad Ali has not lost his quick wit, his legerdemain, the twinkle in his eye or his unmatched gift for being the center of attention.

The former heavyweight champion visited Baltimore yesterday to help generate interest in the Masjid Walter Omar-sponsored July festival at Leakin Park to promote ethnic unity in combating the mounting crime and drug problems in the inner city.

"Unity through dignity will be our theme in fighting the hoodlums who play on our fears and try to divide us," said Al-Hajj Iman Ronald Shakir, the chairman of the event that begins July 2 with a banquet planned for July 4, with Ali heading the dais.

Black, white and Islamic business leaders from the Baltimore-Washington area attended the planning session at the offices of Tydings & Rosenberg on the top floor of the IBM building. But much of the time was given to Ali posing for photographs with the dignitaries and their children.

"They can all have their picture with me, but they can't be ugly," said Ali. "I'm still pretty."

Ali, an amateur magician, entertained the youngsters by making a handkerchief disappear, one of the trick she learned as a young heavyweight from Jimmy Grippo to relieve the tedium of training camp.

He placed a small handbag on the floor and motioned for it to come to him. He laughed the loudest when the bag remained stationary.

Ali's eyes were fixed on a TV screen playing a tape of his legendary boxing career, beginning with his teen-age days as an amateur in Louisville, fighting for trophies and $4 in spending money.

"Can you believe I actually did that?" said the first fighter to capitalize on the closed-circuit television bonanza.

Ali, 50, who suffers from Parkinson's Syndrome, a nerve disorder, spends most of his days on his spacious Michigan farm, reading the Koran and propagating his Islamic faith by signing hundreds of religious tracts for worldwide distribution.

His once-familiar entourage that followed him all around the world has all but vanished, and he makes only a few token appearances at major fights, where his name still draws the greatest applause.

He did not attend last month's heavyweight championship bout in Las Vegas when Riddick Bowe dethroned Evander Holyfield in a classic match.

"The new champ is strong and has good skills, but he needs experience," Ali said in a whisper.

Could Bowe beat Ali in his prime? a man asked.

A smile crossed Ali's lips.

"You must be joking. You know I'm still the greatest in the whole world."

And then it was time to pose for a few more pictures with latecomers.

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