How Parkinson’s Could Take Ali – But Never Break Him
By: Sean Crose
Muhammad Ali was a controversial figure, make no mistake about. Indeed, there is probably something he did or said over the course of his public lifetime that most people would find good reason to be offended by. In other words, he was just like the rest of us in a lot of ways. Some people end up being admired for their better natures, however, and Ali was certainly one of those individuals.
Here was a true warrior – as great a ring tactician and general as the world has seen. Yet it was the man’s battle with Parkinson’s disease which really made this author, and no doubt countless others, nod in true appreciation of his inner fight. Like many – far, far too many – I’m close to someone who suffers from the disease which plagued Ali. Indeed, I’m close to several people afflicted with Parkinson’s. It’s a bitch of an illness, one that can really break a person emotionally before it does physically.
Ali, though, was not a man to be emotionally broken. He proved it against Frazier, he proved it against Foreman, and he most certainly proved it against the illness he couldn’t defeat. Here was a man who simply would – not -quit…not even in the end, when a report emerged that, sick and frail, he was trying his hand at learning the piano.
Most victims of Parkinson’s are diagnosed after the age of 50. Ali was diagnosed at 42, after a career spent fighting a murderer’s row of legends that are still talked about on their own merits to this day. The diagnosis had to have been devastating news – or at least it would have been to most people, and understandably so. Ali was a fighter both in and out of the ring, though. His own daughter made it clear in public that he simply didn’t feel sorry for himself.
And so, even after Parkinson’s symptoms began to truly take their toll – the tremors, the loss of mobility, the loss of speech, the loss of facial expressions – Ali was still, well, Ali. He even kidded around with Bryant Gumbel during an interview back in the early 90s, when his speech had already become severely impacted.
Ali made it clear in that interview that he wasn’t crazy about appearing with Gumbel and answering his questions. Why? Because of his pride. But, as with so many other opponents, pride couldn’t stop the man, who went on to credit his faith with giving him strength. Indeed, Ali saw his disease as a trial from God – who he chose to call “Allah.” Gumbel inquired what it was Ali could do to pass the trial.
“I’m doing it right now,” Ali responded, “coming on your show, facing you.”
“It scares me,” Ali added, “to think I’m too proud to do your show because of my condition.”
The man had many great battles, but to me, Ali fought an even greater battle in retirement. Here’s to his showing people how to fight against formidable opposition outside of the ring, where there’s no referee to pull off your foe, and no bell to end the action.