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As Ali nears 70th birthday, old friends reminisce

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Long before his dazzling footwork and punching prowess made him a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion known as Muhammad Ali, a young Cassius Clay honed his skills by sparring with neighborhood friends and running alongside the bus on the way to school.The man who became the world's most recognizable athlete was a baby sitter, a jokester and a dreamer in the predominantly black West End neighborhood of Louisville where he grew up and forged lasting friendships while beginning his ascent toward greatness.Now, as the iconic boxer slowed by Parkinson's disease prepares to turn 70 next week, he's coming home for a birthday bash at the downtown cultural center and museum that bears his name. The private party Saturday night will double as a fundraiser for the 6-year-old Muhammad Ali Center, which promotes ideals of tolerance, respect and individual achievement. The birthday party will highlight a weeklong extended tribute to the city's favorite son whose name and face emblazon buildings and street signs.Ali turns 70 on Jan. 17, three days after the party.Those who knew him before he developed his famous ringside persona - the brash predictions followed by rapid-fire punches that backed up his taunts - remember a happy-go-lucky kid with a ready smile who had a serious side, aspiring to show his mettle as a fighter.Ali's boyhood neighbor, Lawrence Montgomery Sr., 78, was one of the first to feel the sting of the young boxer's jabs. At the teenage boy's request, Montgomery held up his hands and Ali popped them with punch after punch.Montgomery saw early glimpses of the boxing legend's bravado that earned him the \Louisville Lip\ nickname.\He told me then that he was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world