Muhammad Ali's Parkinson's may not have been caused by boxing

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

Roughly eight years ago, about 16 years after he had first been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Freddie Roach’s day began as normal when he arrived early at his Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Calif.

This was to be a special day, though the Hall of Fame trainer didn’t know it at the time.

Not long after he arrived, he had a visitor. Roach was busy getting prepared for the day, and he didn’t have time to spare. This visitor, though, was different. It was Muhammad Ali, and “The Greatest” had a favor to ask.

Would it be all right, Ali asked Roach, if he could work out at the gym.

The Wild Card gym is a cramped, sweat-stained place tucked behind a strip mall. It looks like it was designed by a movie studio.

“He was so nice,” Roach said. “He was just so normal. I hadn’t to that point had an opportunity to be around him that much, but he was fun and entertaining to be around. He did some magic tricks and was good to whoever was here. There weren’t any big names here. I think it was a Saturday and I started wondering whether I should call some people and tell them Ali was here. But I decided that it would be best to let it happen naturally and whoever showed up that day would get the treat. I tell everybody, that was the greatest day in the history of the Wild Card.”

Roach doesn’t remember exactly when the visit occurred, but he said he believes it was eight years ago, which would put it around 2008 when Ali was 66.

The two of them shared something that made them stand out among boxers: both had Parkinson’s.

By that time, Ali had been silenced by his Parkinson’s and rarely spoke. Ali, who died Friday at 74, had terrible tremors, much like Roach.

When he walked to the heavy bag to hit it, Roach saw a familiar sight: The tremors were gone.

Muhammad Ali was first diagnosed with Parkinson's at the age of 42. (Photo credit: Money)

“When he was hitting the bag, he didn’t have the tremors any more, but as soon as he stopped, he started shaking again,” Roach said. “It was a little like me with the mitts. I shake a little bit, but when I get in the ring to do the mitts, I don’t shake at all. It must be our comfort zone.”

Roach said he doesn’t know for sure, but said he was told by doctors that his Parkinson’s was caused by boxing. One of his grandparents had Parkinson’s, and his father, Paul, had what Roach called “a trace” of it when he died.

“There isn’t a way as far as I know to know for sure, but they think mine probably came from boxing,” Roach said. “But it also could have been genetics.”

It’s been widely assumed that Ali’s Parkinson’s was caused by taking far too many punches during his boxing career. Including his amateur days, Ali fought for more than 25 years. He turned pro in 1960 after winning a gold medal at the Rome Olympics, and retired for good in 1981.

Don King promoted many of Ali’s bouts and insisted boxing was not a cause. King noted that broadcaster Howard Cosell had Parkinson’s when he died and he hadn’t been hit in the head.

“God put the picture right there with me,” King said. “Ali was a man of God, and he got Parkinson’s and he was fighting. Cosell got Parkinson’s and he wasn’t fighting. I don’t see how you say it was boxing when one of them was in the ring and the other was outside of it, but both of them got it.”

Dr. Michael Okun, the chairman of the department of neurology at the University of Florida and medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation, said it is not simply a given that boxing caused Ali’s Parkinson’s.

It won’t be known for certain unless Ali’s brain is examined, and the family has not said whether it would donate his brain for research.

But Okun said there were four signs that suggest the Parkinson’s did not come as a result of the beatings he took in battles against legendary fighters such as Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sonny Liston and Ken Norton.

“We have to be really careful about drawing conclusions without data, and the data you would need at this point to more definitively know would be tissue data,” he said.

Okun, though, said there are four striking things about Ali’s case that may suggest his Parkinson’s was inherited. Ali was diagnosed with it in 1984, when he was 42. He lived nearly half of his life with the disease.

Roach, who retired as a boxer in 1986, said he was 29 when he was diagnosed with it. Roach is 56 now.

Okun’s four points are:

• Ali’s Parkinson’s started on one side of his body.

• Ali responded to Dopamine as a treatment.

• It was slowly progressive.

• It began in his 30s and 40s.

“This has all the hallmarks of Parkinson disease, what we call idiopathic or ‘regular garden variety’ Parkinson disease,” Okun told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. “There are a lot of experts who have seen him over the years and a lot of this case behaves like Parkinson.”

Freddie Roach has battled Parkinson's since being diagnosed with it at 29. (Getty)

Okun, though, was quick to point out that it’s not as if it’s likely that boxing didn’t have a role to play in Ali’s difficulties.

In the final two years of his career, Ali began to noticeably slur his words, and some reporters picked up on it as he was training to face Larry Holmes. He’d taken diuretics to help him lose weight, and so his body appeared to be in shape, even though he was nowhere ready to fight a man the caliber of Holmes.

Taking repeated blows to the head, whether while playing football or boxing, is never a good thing for the brain.

“Now certainly, when you get hit in the head that many times, it’s very clear that you can develop other neurological symptoms such as slurring of the speech and other things,” Okun said. “ … There is all of this worldwide debate, was it caused by all the blows and becoming punch drunk and probably everybody is a little bit right on this.

“It’s likely he had the genotype of Parkinson and maybe even a genetic form of Parkinson, because the majority of Parkinson presents in the 30s and 40s. We have Parkinson that presents in the teens and 20s and even earlier. … We now know many of these are genetic forms of Parkinson.”

Only 10 percent of Parkinson, Okun said, is known to be genetic.

The truth about the cause of Ali’s symptoms may never be known, but Roach knows one thing: Living with it is no fun.

“It’s a pain in the ass, to be honest with you,” Roach said. “The medication you take makes you feel [expletive]. A lot of times, you don’t take the medication because you don’t want to feel like that, you know? Some of the stronger medications, oh, Dopamine, for instance, is really, really hard to take. It can make you quite sick and so forth and you throw up and all that.

“I’ve had it long enough where I’m used to it now. My doctor bought me a timer that goes off every five hours so I make sure I take my medication. It’s important to take it on time because it works much better. But this is no fun to have, I’ll admit that.”