U.S. News

02.20.13

Rasheda Ali Fights Her Father’s Disease

Rasheda, one of boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s children, isn’t afraid to knock down rumors about her father being near death. She tells Lloyd Grove about The Champ’s 30-year battle with Parkinson’s.

Some days, there are moments when Muhammad Ali can speak so clearly you wouldn’t know he’s been struggling with Parkinson’s disease for the past three decades.  

“Certain times of the day, he’s like, here’s an opportunity, and he’ll call all the kids,” says Rasheda Ali, one of the 71-year-old boxing legend’s nine children. “We’re like, ‘Oh Daddy, you sound so great! Oh my God, you sound awesome!’ You just never know when those days are.”

When The Greatest was diagnosed at age 42, after 30 punishing years in the ring, having started sparring as a 12-year-old in Louisville, Kentucky, his slurred speech was an early symptom—a cruel irony for a pop-culture icon who is celebrated as much for his virtuosic mouth as for his pugilistic artistry. 

“My dad’s early-on symptoms were slurred speech and tremors,” says Ali, a pretty woman with a diamond nose stud, lounging on the sofa in her Plaza Hotel suite. “You’ll get the tremors first most of the time, like 70 percent. Then he had the shuffle-walk and he had the rigidity. Back in the 1980s, my dad was misdiagnosed a lot, because it was unheard of in the scientific world—they hadn’t seen someone with Parkinson’s in their forties or thirties, so they thought ‘Oh no, it can’t be Parkinson’s,’ and ruled it out.”

Ultimately doctors in New York figured out what was wrong. (Later Michael J. Fox, whose foundation spearheads Parkinson’s research and treatment, proved lamentably that the illness can even strike a 30-year-old.) Forget floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. “Walking is going to be a problem for people with Parkinson’s because balance is an issue, even in the early stages,” Ali tells me. “As it progresses, balance gets a little more difficult. So when we go see my dad in Arizona”—at the Scottsdale home he shares with his fourth wife, Lonnie—“we go to the movies and go out to eat and stuff, and, yes, we have to help him up, and this and that.”

A couple of weeks ago, Ali and her siblings were compelled to knock down an erroneous British tabloid report that The Champ was “near death.” “Oh God, every year something comes out,” she says. “My daddy goes out all the time, he loves people, he enjoys his life. And when people take a picture of him, the face of Parkinson’s is sometimes not so flattering. If my dad is tired or something, you see it on his face. People don’t really know what Parkinson’s looks like and so for those who aren’t educated about it, they think this looks bad and he’s deteriorating, when that’s not the case at all.”

‘He’ll watch himself all day long,’ his daughter says with an indulgent smile. ‘That’s his favorite subject.’

Ali, a married mother of two, has made herself something of a Parkinson’s expert since her dad’s diagnosis. In 2005 she wrote a children’s book explaining the disease and since 2007 has sat on the advisory board of BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, an Israeli biotech company that is pioneering stem-cell treatments for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. These days, she’s a paid spokeswoman for BrainStorm, which is trying to get Food and Drug Administration approval to begin clinical trials in the United States using “autological” stem cells harvested from a patient’s own bone marrow. 

“As a neurocognitive disease, Parkinson’s is 80 percent environmental—it’s the foods we eat, it’s our lifestyle, it’s hereditary, it’s a lot of things,” Ali says. “So we’re thinking that my dad could’ve had the genetic composition to get Parkinson’s, and then boxing pulled the trigger.” 

She adds: “Boxing is brutal. You knock out the other guy. Like football, it’s brutal. But it’s entertainment. A lot of people like to watch it, but you have to think long and hard about the long-term effects of these sports.” (Ali and her husband, chef Bob Walsh, have been anguishing over whether to let their athletically gifted 14-year-old, Biaggio, play tackle football in high school. Boxing is an easier decision. “No way!” she tells me.)

Her father won the world heavyweight title three times—twice after his boxing license was revoked by the sport’s reigning authorities as punishment for his principled objection to serving in the Vietnam War. “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he famously declared. 

Doesn’t his daughter wish he’d gotten out of the game?

“Of course I do,” she says. “I wish he’d stopped. He wouldn’t have won his three-time championship, but he didn’t have to fight [Leon] Spinks, you know? But he’s never had regrets, even now with Parkinson’s. He’s always said, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing.’” 

Perhaps Muhammad Ali might have revised his savage, racially-charged treatment of the late Smokin’ Joe Frazier—whom he variously insulted as an “Uncle Tom” and a “gorilla” in the run-up to their October 1975 championship bout, the “Thrilla in Manilla.” The 2009 HBO documentary of the same name did much to expose the hero’s feet of (Cassius) Clay, his name before joining the Nation of Islam and espousing that group’s racially divisive ideology. 

“My dad and Joe Frazier were friends,” Ali insists. “I just have to say, my dad was an actor. When he got in front of [Howard] Cosell [ABC Sports’ boxing impresario], he was acting. He was trying to sell tickets. It was a show … Joe was his friend. He loved and respected Joe. I think Frazier just took it personally and he was sensitive and it hurt him.”

Indeed, Muhammad Ali paid his respects at Smokin’ Joe’s funeral in November 2011. The Champ’s greatest rival, financially ruined and suffering from diabetes and cancer, had been reduced to sleeping on a cot in his Philadelphia gym. He remained bitter at his treatment at the hands of his onetime friend. “My dad talks about Joe all the time,” Ali says. “There’s still a love and respect there. When Frazier went into the hospital, my dad called him on the phone and said, ‘You still got it, Joe,’” Ali continues, doing a spot-on impression of her father. “I can’t help it. It pops out every once in a while.” 

And her dad apparently will never satisfy his thirst for adoration, whether from the world at large or from himself. He’s a sucker for movies about Muhammad Ali.

“He’ll watch himself all day long,” his daughter says with an indulgent smile. “That’s his favorite subject.”

She didn’t grow up in the same house as her father, who was married only briefly to her mom, his second wife, and didn’t really get to know him until adulthood. But she has been leveraging her legacy of global game into causes beyond Parkinson’s, especially an effort to dissuade kids in crime-ridden Chicago from joining violent gangs. “I’m working with the Illinois State Crime commission and the Police Athletic League to try to spearhead the campaign,” she says. “We’re doing a boxing fundraiser in the spring to try to get kids off the street, to get them into programs that offer scholarships.” 

Her inspiration, once again, is personal—the searing memory of a 19-year-old cousin, Otto Ali, who was gunned down in front of his Chicago home in 1997. “He was an honor-roll student, brilliant, ready to go to college, very smart, popular, and he was part of the gang initiation,” she says. “These kids drove up to him, 15 years old, and they had to shoot somebody, and he was a victim. The family is still not over it. I have nightmares about it still.”

Ali, who lives in Las Vegas, is also politically active. She’s a supporter of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a former boxer whom she calls “a wonderful person.” And she made phone calls and knocked on doors for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 (he carried Nevada in both elections). She was especially impressed by a promise Michelle Obama made at a lunch during the 2008 campaign.

“We started talking about my book and Parkinson’s, and as you know her dad had MS,” she recalls. “She told me, even before Barack won, ‘We’re going to definitely do something about stem cells’”—a reference to George W. Bush’s 2001 ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research—“and I was so excited … because it’s personal. She loved her dad very much. He had multiple sclerosis. There was a passion there—just like there was a passion for me to try to find a cure for Parkinson’s. Sure enough, they did exactly what they said they were going to do.”

President Obama reversed Bush’s edict in June 2009. Later, Ali happened upon a photograph of then-senator Obama at his desk, with a photo of The Champ in the ring on the wall behind him. “It was the coolest thing,” she says. “I sent it to my daddy. I was like, ‘Look at this!’ He thought it was neat.”