It doesn't happen often, and yet there it was—Brad and Angelina were not the most famous people in a room. Not when the guest of honor is the man known simply as The Greatest. On Nov. 18 Muhammad Ali, 63, returned to his hometown of Louisville, Ky., to christen the new $80 million cultural center bearing his name. With exhibits celebrating confidence, spirituality and other principles the fighter is known for—plus memorabilia like a bejeweled robe given to him by Elvis—the Center should "inspire a lot of people for years to come," said Jim Carrey, one of many stars in Ali's corner for the celebration. "I know he inspired me."

Just by showing up Ali earned a victory of sorts: One tabloid report had him knocking on death's door. Afflicted with Parkinson's disease since 1984, he underwent back surgery to help restore his balance last month. "His health is not good, and he can't talk," says one longtime family friend. "But he does get out and walk." Celebrating his 19th wedding anniversary with wife Lonnie, Ali looked frail but still struck his trademark boxer's pose—clenched fists, mock growl—for cheering crowds outside the Center. "My dad's health is fine," said his daughter Laila Ali, 27. "Parkinson's is a progressive disease, but he's doing fine."

Which let celebs like Jolie—who underwrote two Center exhibits—to personally thank their hero. "Most times this never happens until somebody dies," said Lonnie Ali, 48. "We wanted Muhammad to be the living, breathing inspiration for this Center."