Mesa Musings: Ali inspires my fight with Parkinson's

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.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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