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Ali still shows spirit, sparkle

2013-04-30 10:01
Muhammad Ali (AFP)

New York - Muhammad Ali still enjoys watching old video footage of his fights. It’s his favourite pastime these days.

At 71, he rarely talks, 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 Ali’s eyes have lived 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 dubbed himself "The Greatest" gets a big kick from watching old footage of himself.

"It brings him joy, because he can live through his old self. He loves to watch his fights. I love to watch him watching."

Time magazine last year ranked Ali among the 20 most influential Americans ever for his humanitarianism and the inspiration he provided to people around the globe.

"He has 24-hour care and he needs assistance," says May May, at 45 the oldest of his nine children. His condition has worsened over the past 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 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.

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

Maintaining family life was important, she says. It led her sister, Rasheda Ali, to write a book titled 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 he was sad or depressed, or didn't like them or didn't want to play, but it was just his face.

"It's called it 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 watched old footage of him talking, acting crazy, rhyming, bragging ... now they see him and they think ‘he's mad at us'. 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," says 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."

Her father was never in denial over his condition, she says. It was as if he realised something was 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 says. "He has three homes - in 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 says Ali communicates with his eyes, with his arms, and by "knocking". She illustrates 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."

Her father never looked back after leaving the ring. "He always felt boxing was a means to an end. And that end was to help and serve others."

Ali, who refused to fight in the Vietnam War after his conversion to Islam, grew more and more spiritual, she says.

Ali had his world championship taken away and his boxing licences revoked before the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction for refusing induction into the forces.

"I think if he hadn't got Parkinson's he would be an Imam," May May says, projecting her father as a Muslim spiritual leader.

"He would have been one of the main people on TV defending true Islam. In the time we're living in right now it would have been exceptional because people would have listened to him."

"He used to propagate Islam with pamphlets. Every time he would sign an autograph he would sign it on a Muslim pamphlet. That was his life. He spent all his time doing that. People don't know that."

May May is humbled by the response he engendered. “I met the prime minister of Pakistan. I was at the White House," she recalls him saying. “A little old boy from Louisville, Kentucky. Anything can happen, anything can come true.”

Despite being a world figure, Ali also got giddy around some of his early idols. "He would get excited when he saw Little Richard. He loved Little Richard," says May May. "He was tickled, tickled, tickled by James Brown. I would never see my Dad get excited, but if he saw one of them ... he loved music, his oldies."

Asked about his legacy, May May says: "It depends on who you are. If you are Aryan you're going to hate him for being a draft dodger.

"I used to ask him how he had the guts to stand up against the government. He said: 'I learned who I truly was as a black man.'

"He knew he was an equal human being and no one was going to take that away from him. And that was more important to him than a boxing career.

"I'm a lot like my dad, and I'm proud to say it," she says.

The annual Parkinson's Unity Walk to advance awareness and education drew thousands to Central Park in New York last Saturday.

Read more on:    muhammad ali  |  boxing

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