Healthy Living

Did Muhammad Ali Develop Parkinson's Disease Before Retiring from Boxing?

Did Muhammad Ali Develop Parkinson's Disease Before Retiring from Boxing?

“jondmac: Muhammad Ali” by East Coast Gambler

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, 1942, was a world-class boxer who dedicated most part of his adult life to refining his skills and excelling at the sport. Starting from the early age of 12, Ali entered the world of boxing after he had his bicycle stolen at the hands of a petty thief. After the event, the young Clay proceeded to the Columbia Gymnasium, where the police officer Joe Martin was training, to report the deed and claiming that he was going to ‘beat up’ the thief, after which the officer responded that he would do well to learn boxing before throwing himself into any sort of confrontation.

This fateful turn of events led Clay to his very first amateur fight, in which he was absolutely pummeled. However, instead of succumbing to the shame of defeat, Clay took the beating as a challenge and began training in earnest to become the boxer he knew he could be. Cassius began his training at the aforementioned age of 12 under the tutelage of the very same Joe Martin that told him he needed to learn boxing in order to stand up for himself. Clay would alternate training under both Martin and Fred Stoner, the coach at Grace Community Center and the man who would go on to direct Ali’s early amateur career.

Training, skill and success

Through months of training and competing, Ali started to receive awards and laurels, the first of which being his victory over Ronny O’ Keefe in the televised ‘Tomorrow’s Champions’ show. After this point, Ali developed a somewhat arrogant personality through which he would constantly brag about his skills but, rather than provoking the ire of his peers, he aimed to entertain and make them laugh with his occurrences. It was in 1956, only 2 years after his initiation into the world of boxing, when Ali acquired his first title of great significance: the Golden Glove Championship for amateur fighters in the state of Kentucky, a title which he would go on to win on 5 additional occasions.

Through hard training, dedication to the trade, and a natural talent for the boxing discipline, Muhammad Ali would go on to win a lot of titles and defeat a considerable amount of opponents. During his successful career, Ali fought 61 bouts, 56 of which were victories and the rest defeats; only 1 of which was by knockout. Among his many titles and exploits, Ali obtained a Gold Medal on the Rome Olympics of 1960, in what would be the highlight of his amateur career. In his professional career, he won the undisputed heavyweight champion belt in 1964, at the young age of 22 years. He would regain this title 10 years later, and once again in 1978, which made Ali the first boxer to win 3 world championship titles in this weight category during his active career.

Being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease

Unfortunately, Ali’s prestigious career didn’t come without a price, as in 1984, only 3 years after retiring from boxing, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, with many experts pointing out his career`and years of receiving blows to the head as the main factors behind the onset of his condition. This is the story that the world knew at the time, and was the one which was mostly repeated as the cause of the former boxer’s struggles in the years after he retired from the sport, and yet there was more to Ali’s Parkinson’s than it was initially believed. The lesser-known fact is that the then-professional wrestler was allegedly already showing signs of latent neuronal degeneration and that the years of boxing had only served to accelerate its symptoms.

According to a study of Muhammad Ali's speeches from 1968 to 1981 performed by Jonathan Eig, the author of the boxer’s biography titled “Ali: A Life”, Ali was starting to show symptoms of early Parkinson’s in the form of slowed and slurred speech, especially after particularly intense bouts. Keep in mind that this was several years before the boxer’s formal Parkinson’s diagnosis, which was made official in 1984 when he was 42 years old. The study, which was supported by Arizona State University speech scientists Visar Berisha and Julie Liss, claimed that Ali’s rate of speech — in the form of syllables per second — had slowed down from 39 to 26, which marked a considerable 26 percent decrease in the boxer’s diction, and suggested that he was slurring his words as soon since 1978, 6 years before his diagnosis.

These early signs that the boxer was exhibiting proved to correlate to the ones manifested by early Parkinson’s sufferers, which suggests that the disease might have started to develop due to factors other than Ali’s career, though they were no doubt accelerated by it.

How boxing affected him

In the biography, Eig gathered and studied data on the punches Ali received in many of his fights and how this might have affected his speech pattern before and after each bout. One of his most interesting findings was that, after the renowned Ernie Shavers - Muhammad Ali fight in 1977, which spanned a whopping 15 rounds and where the latter had received 266 punches, the boxer had shown a 16 percent decrease in the speed of his speech after the fight’s end, with similar results after each high-profile fight the boxer participated in. Regardless, despite the tapering of Ali’s speech after the fights, he would usually recover his former rate of speech after some time, though the curve usually showed a steady decline, according to the Arizona State University.

One of the conclusions reached with said study is that, since a decreased rate of speech is often an early indicator of Parkinson’s Disease — and with Muhammad Ali’s case as a glaring example of this fact —, the need to establish long-term speech studies for those who may be at risk of developing Parkinson’s becomes a very real necessity. If anything, the data obtained from the said study would also provide valuable insight into the brain’s function on a yearly basis. Furthermore, the results from such a study would also help athletes who participate in disciplines with a high risk of head injuries to keep better informed of their choice and to help them identify when their health has been compromised by detecting changes in their own speech patterns.

Detecting traumatic injury

Above all things, the importance of said measures to detect the onset of Parkinson’s become fully apparent when considering that the only way to properly detect chronic traumatic encephalopathy is via autopsy, which is obviously held after the patient has expired and cures to the diseases which affected them throughout their lives are therein rendered moot. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, on the other hand, is a condition caused by excessive trauma to the cranium (such as with boxing, American football, and so on) and which is a leading factor in the development of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Multiple Sclerosis, among other serious conditions.

If speech studies conducted on athletes and individuals who are at constant risk of head injury help clinicians to better detect the onset of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or any other degenerative diseases, then it will most certainly pay off, in the long run, to invest in them. Eig’s biography, alongside the studies conducted at the Arizona State University, will hopefully help to raise awareness on these conditions and help to develop methods to accurately detect their onset from very early stages, so that the patients suffering from said conditions may live full, normal lives.