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Muhammad Ali’s other big fight

Muhammad Ali, center, with the support of his sister-in-law Marilyn Williams, left, and Dr. Robert Spetzler, director of Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's.David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic/AP

Muhammad Ali was “The Greatest.” He told us so and backed it up in the boxing ring and in his fight against Parkinson’s Disease. Ali was about movement. He was fast and fierce. He was the fighter who could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Parkinson’s robbed him of all that. At the end, he could barely walk or speak.

Parkinson’s is a progressive, degenerative neurological disease that impacts movement. It produces tremors, stiffness, muscle and joint pain, depression and, in some cases, dementia. It can be treated and managed, to a degree, but there is no cure.

In all, there about a million Parkinson’s patients in the United States, with 50,000 new cases every year. Ali was diagnosed in the mid-1980s, just a few years after retiring from the ring.

I was diagnosed two years ago. It was not a surprise. My mother was a “Parkie,” and my wife and I knew the symptoms — stiffness and balance issues. My right arm didn’t swing when I walked. My handwriting was cramped and unreadable — a condition called micrographia. I lost my sense of smell.


Now, easy stuff — shaving, buttoning a shirt, eating with a fork — is hard. I struggle with stiffness and fatigue. I’m at my best in the morning, when the medication cycle is at its peak. I focus on family, work, and exercise. I play tennis, walk, and stretch. Most nights, I’m in bed by 8:30.

I work at managing Parkinson’s, knowing I will not conquer it. There have been some bonuses. I’m more patient with myself and others. I’ve gotten better at living in the moment. I count blessings, not curses.

Fifty-six wins and five losses. Muhammad Ali’s record in the ring is legendary, but he fought another heavyweight bout that’s worth remembering — against Parkinson’s, and for research and treatment. A Parkinson’s center in Phoenix bears his name. He remained active and engaged with life as long as he could. He lived his life, not his disease. He did it with heart and dignity.

A pretty good way to live. Not a bad way to go.

R.D. Sahl, who worked in television news for more than 40 years, is an associate professor at Boston University’s College of Communication