Three-time world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali preached nonviolence outside the ring while wielding fists of fury inside it. Subscribe now for an inside look at his remarkable life, plus rare family photos, only in PEOPLE.
“He never got caught up in anything negative,” she tells PEOPLE. “He wasn’t living life thinking, ‘I have Parkinson’s.’ He didn’t let it control him mentally. He never complained or said, ‘Why me?’ He kept going. It was remarkable.”
Ali also refused to go into hiding after his diagnosis, less concerned about preserving his tough-guy image than living a full life and setting an example, she says. Even as his muscles froze and his ability to speak diminished, he attended many charity fundraisers and public events, including the memorable opening of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when 3.5 billion TV viewers watched Ali’s trembling hand ignite the Olympic flame.
“His lighting that torch said something about the human spirit,” said NBC commentator Bob Costas.
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Michael J. Fox tells PEOPLE that after he went public with his own Parkinson’s diagnosis in 1998 (he was diagnosed in 1991), Ali called and encouraged him to fight on.
“He gave a lot of us a model for how to take things one day at a time,” Fox says. “He knew how not to project too far ahead, to where [the Parkinson’s] was taking him and what it was going to do to him in the future. He stayed in the present.”
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A degenerative neurological disease, Parkinson’s has no cure. As many as 10 million people suffer from the disease worldwide, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, and about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed every year. In later stages, patients become confined to a wheelchair or bed and often fall victim to infections such as pneumonia.
Ali faced the inevitable with a sort of cheeky gallows humor, Hana says.
“He almost died so many times, and he was always excited when he found out he was in the news,” she recalls. “He was always asking, ‘How long do they think I have to live? Is everybody sad? Is the world taking notes?’ ”
Family friend John Ramsey recalls that on his final visit to Ali and fourth wife Lonnie at their Phoenix home in April, less than two months before Ali died on June 3, he bent his ear close to the fighter’s mouth to hear some of the last words he could manage.
“I was bad!” the fighter rasped.
“You were bad,” his friend assured him.
“Even when he couldn’t speak, he’d look at you with that sparkle,” says daughter Rasheda Ali, who has become a Parkinson’s Disease activist. “He was still in there. He was saying, ‘There’s a reason I got this disease. This is what God gave me, and I’m going to make the best of it.’ “