Muhammad Ali’s three-decade battle with Parkinson’s Disease was a huge part of the second half of the boxer’s extraordinary life, and late Friday evening it ended. Ali was 74.
Perhaps the most iconic moment of Ali’s struggle with Parkinson’s came at the 1996 Summer Olympics, when Ali — hands visibly shaking — lit the Olympic torch at the Opening Ceremony in Atlanta.
In a piece in GQ on Tuesday, writer Andrew Corsello shared a lovely anecdote from legendary boxing trainer Freddy Roach (who himself suffers from Parkinson’s), which revealed that late in his life, Ali was able to find a respite from the disease in the most fitting way: in the boxing gym.
In 2009, as Corsello was reporting a profile on Manny Pacquiao for GQ, he interviewed Roach (Pacquiao’s trainer) over the phone. After an awkward exchange, Corsello fed Roach a softball question. In return, he received an amazing story about a time in 2008, when Ali unexpectedly arrived at Roach’s gym.
“Muhammad Ali walked into my gym” — the Wild Card Boxing Club, in L.A. — “unannounced. I couldn’t believe it. It was just him and his driver and a couple of friends. He could barely walk, so I went up to him and said, ‘Champ, this is such an honour. What can I do for you?’ ”
Ali could barely shake hands. Roach said he had to take the Champ’s right in his own two hands and lift it up and back to the proper shaking position, halfway between the two of them. Roach tried to read Ali’s face. The lips moved, but as far as Roach could tell, no sound emerged. Roach leaned in close. He could make out the fact of a whisper, but he couldn’t discern the words. Finally, one of Ali’s companions explained.
“The Champ would like to know if you can suit him up so he can do some work on the heavy bag, and maybe spar a little.”
Although Roach thought he was being pranked, he agreed. And amazingly enough, once Ali stood in front of the heavy bag, the Parkinson’s briefly disappeared:
Some time later, Ali emerged from the locker room wearing boxing shoes, trunks, and a shirt. One of Roach’s men laced him into some gloves. The men Ali had come with then escorted him, gently and deliberately, over to the heavy bag and positioned him in front of it. Slowly, Muhammad Ali raised his hands.
“And the instant he did,” Roach says, “it all…went away.“
At this point in the relaying of his story, Roach stood up before me and acted out what he had seen — how Ali miraculously burst the cocoon of his Parkinson’s and began going at the heavy bag in earnest, and “with speed.”
This phenomenon, Corsello explained, is known as kinesia paradoxa. For those who, prior to suffering from Parkinson’s, spent their lives participating in muscle-memory activities, returning to that activity can temporarily pause the tremors and motor disabilities brought upon by the disease. Scientists can’t crack exactly why it happens, but there’s plenty of research showing that it does.
Fittingly for Ali, that muscle memory — and thus, that much-needed respite — came only when he laced up his boxing gloves.
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