News ArchivesRead News

Mesa Musings: Ali inspires my fight with Parkinson's

Wednesday January 25, 2012

Jim Carnett

Daily Pilot - Several nights ago I dreamed I met heavyweight boxing champ and cultural icon, Muhammad Ali.

He turned 70 last week.

Though I've been a fan for decades, I confess I've never dreamed of him before.

The setting was a surreal, red carpet-like environment, and I was positioned behind a roped-off area with hundreds of other fans.

He stood before us, unsmiling, distinguished, regal. He must have been 10 feet tall.

Impetuously, I ducked beneath the restraining rope and sprinted over to where he was, catching the security guard's unawares. As I stood before him he took a suspicious side step, as if to avoid me.

"No, Mr. Ali, you don't understand. I'm not a whacko fan," I said. "You and I are simpatico. We both have Parkinson's disease."

With my blunt declamation he stepped forward, put a large muscular arm across my shoulders, gave me a smile and escorted me away from the crowd so that we could chat.

So ended my dream.

Parkinson's is a degenerative brain disorder that causes nerve cells to die or become impaired. Patients exhibit such symptoms as tremors or shaking, slowness of movement, rigidity or stiffness, and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gate, cognitive problems or muffled speech.

My first memory of Ali is as a cheeky light heavyweight gold medalist at the 1960 Rome Olympics. His name then was Cassius Clay.

In Miami on the evening of Feb. 25, 1964, he fought heavily favored Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title.

I'd been a U.S. Army private for exactly 11 days, and was pulling KP duty that night in my basic training company at Fort Ord. The mess sergeant graciously allowed us to sit at a mess hall dining table and listen to the bout on the radio. As I recall, it was a chilly and damp Monterey evening.

As we awaited the opening bell we were convinced that Liston would thrash the young braggart to a bloody and penitent pulp.

Clay audaciously predicted at the pre-fight weigh-in that he'd relentlessly pursue the powerful and plodding Liston, and would "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." What nerve!

Float and sting he did.

Clay shocked the world. He was ahead on points by the third round. In the fifth, he landed flurries of combinations to take control of the fight, and then dominated the sixth. Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh.

To the shock and chagrin of the KP workers in Ord's Headquarters Company, 3rd Brigade, 1st Battalion, Clay was the new world champion. Shortly thereafter, he boldly labeled himself "the greatest!"

I remained unconvinced. When he beat my hero, Floyd Patterson, by a TKO in November 1965, I revised my opinion.

The three-time heavyweight champ logged a 56-5 career record, with 37 knockouts. He had victories over Leon Spinks, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, Jerry Quarry and George Foreman. He also lost to Frazier, Norton and Spinks.

His final fight, on Dec. 11, 1981, was a loss to Trevor Berbick by a decision.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson's three years after his last fight, 28 years ago. My diagnosis came 22 years later. Never did I imagine we'd be linked by such a condition.

Ali's symptoms manifest themselves in slurred and difficult speech, tremors, stiffness of extremities and an expressionless facial "mask." Ali once estimated that he took 29,000 shots to the head during his fight career, which spanned two decades. That could easily have accelerated his approaching neurological calamity.

His family says Ali now battles the late stages of Parkinson's and is susceptible to pneumonia, infections, falls and swallowing problems.

But the champ doesn't feel sorry for himself. He stoically accepts his fate.

"These are the cards I was dealt," he once told his family. "Don't be sad."

Muhammad Ali amazed me when I listened to his fight on the radio in an Army mess hall in 1964. He continues to amaze me today.

I'm a huge fan.


Recent News

May 20 - Book Review: Aging in the Key of Humor
May 19 - Press Release: The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research Joins Multinational Critical Path for Parkinson's Consortium
May 19 - Congress reaches deal to overhaul chemical regulation
May 16 - Lifestyle: Why Parkinson's disease won't stop me rowing across the Pacific
May 16 - Many biomarkers for PD fail to inform on progression
May 10 - Parkinson's Cell Transplant Shows Good Reinnervation at 24 Years
May 7 - Growing art installation gathers stories of living with Parkinson's
May 5 - New technique can provide better cell transplants against Parkinson's disease
May 2 - What's Good For The Heart Is Good For The Brain
Apr 29 - Press Release: FDA approves first drug to treat hallucinations and delusions associated with Parkinson’s disease
Apr 28 - Dopamine-making neurons can be chemically controlled in animal model of Parkinson's
Apr 25 - Lifestyle: Dating with Disease
Apr 25 - Scientific breakthrough in fight against Parkinson's and Alzheimer's
Apr 20 - Breakthrough Parkinson's disease blood test
Apr 15 - Living with Parkinson's
Apr 12 - Tissue biomarker for dementia with Lewy bodies and Parkinson’s disease
Apr 11 - Yoga for Every Body: Experts say yoga can ease pain and improve mobility for people with neurologic conditions
Apr 9 - Commonly prescribed Parkinson's drugs up risk of compulsive gambling, shopping, binge eating, hypersexuality
Apr 7 - Pfizer and IBM Launch Innovative Research Project to Transform Parkinson's Disease Care
Apr 7 - Parkinson's Drug Highly Effective for Resistant Depression