A champion with his fists and his mouth, Muhammad Ali was also a champion at getting old. And a champ at living, and aging, with Parkinson’s disease.
The contrast between the Ali we remember dancing like a butterfly in his gorgeous youth and the sight of him starting to lurch, slur and tremble could have been too much to bear for his millions of fans. Yet Ali did not try to hide his physical decline. He was open about his experience of Parkinson’s, not shying away from that uncomfortable (for us) then-and-now comparison.
Notice that Ali mentioned his voice before his body in describing how his condition was affecting him. At his zenith his words were even mightier than his blows. Ali often seemed more poet than prizefighter. That’s why I found his comment so striking on how Parkinson’s disease affected his interactions in the world:
“It slowed me down and caused me to listen rather than talk. Actually, people pay more attention to me now because I don’t talk as much.”
What wisdom and humility from this reformed big talker. I have been trying to Google “old people should listen more” but every result I get is about young people listening to their elders. Not so much about Ali’s advice to listen more and talk less as you age.
I would have liked some details on how talking less won Ali more attention. I have noticed as I age that fewer people seem riveted to what I have to say. If only Ali could tell us more.
Ali was also inspirational as the Comeback King. His refusal to fight in America’s Vietnam War crashed his career at his athletic pinnacle. But he staged a comeback, regaining his boxing title with the 1974 knockout of George Foreman in the central African country formerly known as Zaire, which Ali dubbed Rumble in the Jungle. Pugilistic experts said that he won by relying on a strategy more suited to the older, experienced boxer he had become. At 32 Ali already knew a bit about aging well.
I am old enough to remember back when he was still named Cassius Clay Jr. His father had been named for a white man from a slave-holding family who became a leading abolitionist. The name Muhammad Ali came with his conversion to Islam.
Ali made another comeback: from being one of the most hated men in America due to his conscientious objector stance during the Vietnam War. He survived condemnation in the 1960s and 70s and cemented his comeback with Sportsman of the Century awards by the BBC and Sports Illustrated in 1999. Few have been down for the count as often as Ali was, and then leapt up to prove all sceptics wrong.
“There’s an important lesson in that for the rest of us: We’re only down when we tell ourselves to stay down. Even if we find ourselves running into professional brick walls due to age, changing technology, or a changing workplace culture, there’s always an opportunity for someone who refuses to be defined by defeat.”
– Money magazine
A salutary lesson for us, but for Ali it must have been the ultimate challenge to accept the radical deterioration of his physical strength. For he knew there could be no comeback this time. If Ali had not been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 42, who knows how his life could have turned out?
Ali got comfortable not only with his Parkinson’s but also with the uncomfortable subject of mortality. He was the embodiment of his motto: “Live every day like it’s your last because someday you’re going to be right.”
There have been endless eulogies for Ali, from friends, family and the famous, so let us allow the championship talker have the last word on his legacy.
“I would love to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.”
– Muhammad Ali’s 2004 memoir, The Soul of a Butterfly.
But Ali could not resist concluding with his own version of humility.
“And if all that’s too much then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”