Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, whose 70th birthday is Tuesday, remains upbeat as he battles Parkinson's disease.
“Rumble, young man, rumble,” used to be his battle cry.
But Muhammad Ali is an old man now, ravaged by years in the ring and decades of braving Parkinson’s disease. The voice that used to bellow he was “The Greatest” is largely muted now, save for times in the mornings when he is able to whisper his thoughts.
The face, though, is still that of perhaps the most recognizable man in the world. Maybe not as finely chiseled as it was in his prime, but close enough.
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“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 Tuesday, giving Baby Boomers who grew up with him one more reason to reflect on their own advancing years.
He has battled Parkinson’s the way he fought the late Joe Frazier, never giving an inch. But nearly 30 years of living with it has taken a heavy toll.
Ali’s days at home with his 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 old fights. The hands will move, eyes will twitch, as he remembers the magnificent fighter 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.”
Ali remains a proud man. There are no complaints. No time spent bemoaning his fate.
“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.’ “
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 Center in Phoenix. “But he’s never downbeat about it.
“He’s a tremendous inspiration to everyone.”
How Ali got the disease isn’t 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 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 such as Frazier, Earnie Shavers and George Foreman.
By the final stages of his career, Ali was slurring words. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Lieberman said he doesn’t believe Ali got Parkinson’s because of repeated blows to the head because he doesn’t have classic Dementia pugilistica.
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.”
The festivities for Ali’s 70th birthday include a Feb. 18 bash at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, where celebrities and former fighters such as Foreman, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks and Roberto Duran will pay tribute to him. Manny Pacquiao might sing a song, and millions of dollars will be raised for brain research.
People will attend because he is Muhammad Ali.
But they will also be there because of the person he is — the kind of person who didn’t turn down an autograph request. The kind of person who tried to help the less fortunate or the sick. The kind of person who seemingly 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.’ “