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Original Issue

Facing Facts about Ali

He was not the greatest at knowing when to quit, nor were fans who blithely cheered him on

Muhammad Ali is brain-damaged from boxing. That is not speculation, it is fact. I get no pleasure out of typing those words, but I do feel a certain sense of relief, much as one feels relief after learning that an ugly crime has been solved, that order and logic have surged in where speculation, fear and enigma had once pooled. If there must be hardship, then let us know its cause. Now we know.

In the new book Muhammad Ali, His Life and Times, written by Thomas Hauser with Ali's cooperation, Ali's physicians speak publicly for the first time of the causes of Ali's physical impairment. As was previously known, the 49-year-old Ali is suffering from Parkinson's syndrome. This is not Parkinson's disease, as has often been reported, but a neurological defect caused by the brain's inability to produce enough dopamine, a chemical essential to normal nerve activity in the brain.

The condition, according to Dr. Stanley Fahn, who has tested Ali extensively, is defined by several key features. "One is a tremor," says Fahn in Hauser's book. "Another is slowness of movement. A third is rigidity of muscles, including those muscles used in speech. There can also be difficulty maintaining balance. The most common cause of Parkinsonism is a progressive neurological disorder known as Parkinson's disease. However, there are many other causes.... In Muhammad's case, there's damage to these [brain] cells from physical trauma." That physical trauma, Fahn notes, consisted of "repeated blows to the head over time." Boxing.

Dr. Dennis Cope, who examines Ali four times a year, concurs with Fahn's diagnosis, stating in the book, "So far as I know, if Muhammad hadn't been a professional fighter, none of these problems would have occurred."

These doctors are not lightweights. Cope is the director of the UCLA General Internal Medicine Residency Program and chairman of its Educational Policy and Curriculum Committee. Fahn is the director of the Parkinsonism and Movement Disorders Clinic at New York City's Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, a professor of neurology at Columbia University and scientific director of the Parkinson's Disease Foundation.

Cope and Fahn appear to care more about Ali than did Dr. Charles Williams, who as a member of Ali's medical team gave Ali an ill-advised thyroid medication before his 1980 bout against Larry Holmes. Writes Hauser, "the conjunction with the fight itself, had the potential to kill him." After the fight Williams said, "I may have placed him in jeopardy inadvertently." The doctor told Hauser, "I just wanted to get [Ali] in good enough shape, and sure enough, he looked good."

Ali always looked good; even after the terrible beating he took from Holmes, he looked good. His face is still smooth as a marble statue's, and often just as blank. Both Cope and Fahn want to make it clear that Ali is not "punch-drunk," not suffering from dementia, and if he takes his medication, his condition should get no worse than it now is. But Ali's genius was in his performance, in his ability to turn any moment into an explosion of will, theater and high nonsense. And now that is gone.

Ali was never a deep thinker. He graduated from high school ranked 376th in a class of 391, and his IQ has been measured at 83. His poems were cute but childlike. Hauser says he may be dyslexic.

Ali was the heavyweight champion of the world during some of the world's most turbulent times, and he stood onstage and spoke his mind. But he was not, as some people now claim, a leader or a role model or even a martyr. He was a man of incredible boxing skills and determination, blessed with verve and an intuitive understanding of life's unfairnesses. As a black man he spoke for minorities. As a war-hater, he spoke for many. But the public wouldn't have cared about him at all had he not been able to do one barbaric thing—knock men out.

It is today that Ali is a martyr. He sacrificed brain cells for glory. For the stage.

I used to watch Ali fight on TV, on closed-circuit, in bars, in motels, in ballrooms, once on a huge screen on the 50-yard line at the Orange Bowl. I saw him fight Frazier and Norton. I also watched him go 15 rounds with a Japanese wrestler who lay on his back and kicked. And after a time, I wanted to see him lose. I loved Ali the showman, but I hated the fraud. He shook his head and laughed and rope-a-doped and acted as though boxing didn't hurt. All those people who said they loved him didn't care that he was 35, then 39, and still taking blows to the head. He was a clown, a dancing minstrel, a voyeur's delight, a willing victim. Hey, Frazier's hooks never hurt anybody in the crowd, did they?

For a time I wondered if Ali was indeed beyond the laws of nature. Now, of course, we all know he wasn't.

I talked with Hauser before I wrote this piece, and he asked that I please emphasize that Ali is now a man at peace with himself, a man with no regrets, "a happy man." No doubt. Ali is a decent man, too. Always has been. I have seen that decency many times, in person, watching Ali in crowds, on the street, shaking hands, holding babies.

Then why does thinking about him make me so sad? Because Ali let this happen to himself? Because we let it happen? Because watching it was so darn much fun?