Autumn of a boxing legend

In the grip of Parkinson's disease, Mohammad Ali still manages to stay afloat

Autumn of a boxing legend

The boxer who pummeled opponents with his words as well as with his fast fists rarely talks these days, and his dazzling footwork is a memory frozen on video tape and in the minds of millions of admirers.

But the spirit and sparkle in 71-year-old Muhammad Ali's eyes live on through a 30-year struggle against the effects of Parkinson's disease, which has stricken about one million in the United States and six million worldwide.

His daughter, Maryum (May May) Ali, said the man who famously dubbed himself "The Greatest" gets a big kick from watching old footage of himself.

"That's his favorite pastime. He loves to watch himself. He loves it," May May told Reuters in an interview on the eve of the annual Parkinson's Unity Walk to advance awareness and education in New York. "It brings him joy, because he's not that person any more but he can live through his old self. He loves to watch his fights. I love to watch him watching."

Ali was ranked among the 20 most influential Americans ever last year by Time Magazine for his humanitarianism and the inspiration he provided to people around the globe. While he has battled Parkinson's, a progressive disorder in which dopamine levels in the brain decline affecting messages to nerves controlling movement and coordination, May May champions efforts to help educate and promote research into the disease.

"He has 24-hour care and he needs assistance," May May, at 45 the oldest of his nine children, said noting that his condition had worsened over the last three years. "His speech isn't that great. But my father chills out. He watches the Super Bowl, and he gets massages. When I go visit him it's like a little sabbatical with him. I'm like chilling out with him."

A former rapper and comedian, an author and social activist, May May bears a strong resemblance to her father with her bright eyes, round face, pronounced cheekbones and spirit to match. She sounds just like the great man himself when she lapses into some of his familiar patter, before reminiscing about his difficult times after first showing symptoms.

"I tell you what was hard for him. It was hard to go out and hear people talking about him," she said. "Because he was proud and he didn't want people feeling sorry for him, because I think he felt better than what they thought he looked like."

Maintaining family life was important, she said, which led her sister, Rasheda Ali, to write a book called 'I'll Hold Your Hand So You Won't Fall'. "It's actually a children's book for parents to know how to teach their kids about Parkinson's."

"My father's grandchildren thought my dad was sad or depressed, or didn't like them or didn't want to play, but it was just his face," May May said.  "It's called the Parkinson's mask, where the muscles in the face droop in a stoic look where you don't look like you have any emotion.

"His grandkids had watched old footage of him talking, acting crazy, rhyming, they see him and they think 'he's mad at us'. She (Rasheda) told them, 'look at his eyes, see how much fun he's having'."

"We saw slurring of the speech and slowness while he was (still) boxing," said May May. "So there's a really good chance that he had it much earlier than when he was diagnosed (in 1984). We were thinking that whatever he had was from boxing because other boxers have slurred speech."

She said her father was never in denial over his condition. "He was like 'something's happening' and he was trying to figure it out. He was dealing with it. The optimism he had, predicting rounds and calling the knockout and saying he was beautiful and standing up for his faith... he was always confident and optimistic. That was kind of how he was with his disease, too.

"He's the kind of guy that pushed his body to the limit. If boxing and what he went through in his career didn't put him down, he was not letting shaky hands stop him from going out. That's just his make-up."

Ali continued to travel the world for decades. "He still travels," she said. "He has three homes — his hometown of Louisville, in Michigan and in Arizona in the winter. You still see him at baseball games sometimes. He lives," she said. "His spirit is still the same."

May May said Ali communicates with his eyes, with his arms, and by "knocking", illustrating by clicking the roof of her mouth with her tongue. "I guess that's from his African roots. It hasn't been super sad for me until maybe the past three years because we have the education and understanding of it. That's everything, because you're able to enjoy them the way they are."

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