2012-01-17 / Focus

Ali at 70: Still a fighter

World-renowned boxing champion celebrates birthday, battles Parkinson’s
BY TIM DAHLBERG AP Sports Columnist


BOXING GREAT MUHAMMAD ALI looks down from a balcony at friends attending a celebration for his 70th birthday at the Muhammad Ali Center on Saturday in Louisville, Ky. Ali turns 70 today. 
AP PHOTO / MARK HUMPHREY BOXING GREAT MUHAMMAD ALI looks down from a balcony at friends attending a celebration for his 70th birthday at the Muhammad Ali Center on Saturday in Louisville, Ky. Ali turns 70 today. AP PHOTO / MARK HUMPHREY PHOENIX

“Rumble, young man, rumble,” used to be his battle cry.

But Muhammad Ali is an old man now, ravaged by his years in the ring and his decades of braving Parkinson’s disease.

The voice that used to bellow that he was “The Greatest” is largely muted now, save for those times in the mornings when he is able to whisper his thoughts.

The face, though, is still that of the most recognizable man on earth. Maybe not as finely chiseled as it was in his prime, but close enough.

“It’s not like he doesn’t look like himself,” said his oldest daughter, Maryum “May May” Ali. “It’s the same face, the Parkinson’s hasn’t affected that.”’

Ali turns 70 today, giving Baby Boomers who grew up with him one more reason to reflect on their own advancing years.

He’s fought Parkinson’s the way he fought the late Joe Frazier, never giving an inch. But it’s a fight he can’t win, and nearly 30 years of living with it has taken a heavy toll.

His days at home with wife, Lonnie, in a gated community near Phoenix, generally follow the same routine: He gets out of bed and takes a shower before easing into his favorite chair for long hours at a time.

Sometimes he will watch videos of his old fights. The hands will move, eyes will twitch, as he remembers the magnificent fighter and physical specimen he once was.

“I always say the only person who likes to watch old Muhammad Ali fights more than me is him,” said John Ramsey, a Louisville radio and television personality who has been a close friend of Ali’s for more than 30 years. “His memory is better than mine and he’s very sharp. His sense of humor is still there, too.”

Through it all he remains a proud man. There are no complaints. No time spent bemoaning his fate.

It is, the devout Muslim would say, God’s will.

“He would always just say to his family, ‘These are the cards I was dealt, so don’t be sad,’” Maryum Ali said. “He never played the victim. There was never any ‘Woe is me.’”

That he is still alive so long after being diagnosed with the degenerative disease may be a tribute to the athleticism and inner strength that helped him stop Frazier on a brutally hot morning in the Philippines and helped him knock out the fearsome George Foreman in Africa. Among the heavyweights of his generation he was a big man, standing 6-foot-2 and usually weighing in at around 210 pounds.

He’s stooped now and weighs much less. But his arms are those of a younger man, and his body still shows signs of the magnificent sculpting of days gone by. Every Sunday, his doctor in Phoenix makes a house call to make sure he’s doing OK.

There are medications to help relieve his symptoms; there is no cure for Parkinson’s.

“The Parkinson’s has affected him a lot, one of things he has is a lot of difficulty speaking,” said Dr. Abraham Lieberman, director of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center in Phoenix. “But he’s never downbeat about it. He’s a tremendous inspiration to everyone.”

In November, a few days after he traveled to Philadelphia to say goodbye to Frazier, Ali was rushed to a Phoenixarea hospital. His family later brushed it off as nothing more than dehydration.

The fact he was quickly back resting at home didn’t surprise those who really know him.

“Ali was always at his best when things were the worst,” said Gene Kilroy, his former business manager and good friend. “It’s the kind of man he is.”

Ali, his daughter says, is in the late stages of Parkinson’s now, a time when doctors say patients are particularly susceptible to things that can kill them.

Pneumonia is the leading cause of death among Parkinson’s patients, who are also at constant risk for other infections. The increasing inability to swallow can be fatal, and falls are always a major concern.

“He’s had a very visible and courageous fight against this disease. He has not given up,” said Dr. Blair Ford, a professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University, who specializes in Parkinson’s research. “Three decades of Parkinson’s is devastating. This is a tougher opponent than anyone he’s faced.”

How Ali got the disease will never be known, because not much is known about the cause of Parkinson’s — other than it is characterized by increasingly severe tremors and periodically stiff or frozen limbs. What is known is that patients gradually lose brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical key to the circuitry that controls muscle movement, and the treatment is generally dopamine-boosting medication.

Ali once calculated that he took 29,000 punches to the head in a career that spanned more than two decades. He fought without headgear as an amateur, and never backed down while trading punches with brutal sluggers like Frazier, Earnie Shavers and Foreman.

By the final stages of his career, he was slurring his words. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Lieberman says he doesn’t believe Ali got Parkinson’s because of repeated blows to the head because he doesn’t have classic Dementia Pugilista, which afflicted the late Jerry Quarry, whom Ali defeated twice. Ali is coherent and his thought process is still intact, though the Parkinson’s forces him to communicate more with gestures and actions instead of words.

Daughter Maryum believes her father’s choice of profession had something to do with his fate.

“In my heart, I think it was a combination of Parkinson’s and trauma to the head,” she said. “He got hit a lot and he fought for a long time.”

Indeed he did. Ali’s fights often went 15 rounds and he would often stick his head out and dare opponents to land punches just to respond with some flurries and, on a good night, perhaps even do the Ali shuffle.

The stories of his legendary battles with Frazier and Foreman are etched in the fabric of the times, monuments to a sport that has never been the same since he retired. His fights were so big they had names like the “Thrilla in Manilla” and the “Rumble in the Jungle.”

Back then, no one could have imagined the Ali they see now. He was a towering figure who won over a country with his mere presence when he fought Foreman in Zaire. Bombastic on the stage, he taunted opponents and teased world figures, once telling Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos: “I saw your wife. You’re not as dumb as you look.”

“He was brash. He could shoot off his mouth. He could do things a lot of people want to do but couldn’t do, and he backed it up with his fists,” said Ed Schuyler Jr., who traveled the world covering Ali’s fights for The Associated Press. “He was Muhammad Ali. There will never be another like him.”

Other stories came later. Foreman tells how he tenderly helped Ali button his shirt as they prepared for a dinner honoring them in London. It was early in the progression of his disease, and Ali didn’t appreciate his old foe having to help him get ready, challenging Foreman to another fight.

Later the world would be shocked at the sight of Ali trembling almost uncontrollably as he stood for what seemed like forever while lighting the Olympic flame in 1996 in Atlanta. It’s a moment indelibly etched in time, and it helped turn the final sentiment of public opinion — some resented his refusal to be drafted — in his favor.

More recently, Ramsey tells the story of going with Ali to visit a dying boy in the hospital, something Ali has done with regularity since his championship days.

Then, as before, the rule was no cameras, no press. Just Ali and the boy in the room together.

“He just held the boy’s hand for a long time and they stared in each other’s eyes,” Ramsey said. “He didn’t say a word, they just connected.”

Today, Ali still goes to occasional sporting events, where he is invariably greeted with warm, standing ovations. His oldest daughter joined him last September for one, sitting with Ali and his wife in the owner’s suite at Angel Stadium for a baseball game. Ali was taken to the suite in a golf cart, waving and shaking hands as he slowly went by.

“His eyes were bright and he was really enjoying himself,” Maryum Ali said. “Lonnie says he functions better when he uses his mind, and I know it makes him feel good when people remember him.”

The festivities for his 70th birthday include a Feb. 18 bash at the MGM Grand arena in Las Vegas, where celebrities and former fighters like Foreman, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks and Roberto Duran will pay tribute to him. Manny Pacquiao may sing a song, and millions of dollars will be raised for brain research.

People will come because he’s Muhammad Ali. But they’ll also be there because of the person he is — the kind of person who never turned down an autograph. The kind of person who tried to help the less fortunate or the sick. The kind of person who never gets down because he wants to keep those around him up.

“I would ask him how he stays so positive,” Ramsey said. “He would say, ‘I’ve got the best known face on the planet. I’m the three-time heavyweight champion of the world. I’ve got no reason to be down.”’

“He just has a good heart. He doesn’t believe in being mean to people,” his daughter said. “If someone was in need, he would always help them without even thinking about it.”

Maryum Ali said her father knows he didn’t lead a perfect life. But he takes comfort in his religion, and he accepts everything he’s been given.

That goes for the Parkinson’s, too.

“He would always say I’d rather suffer now than in the hereafter,” she said. “That’s just who my dad is.”

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