Muhammad Ali's grieving wife of 30 years recalls a pep talk from her debilitated husband: "Stand tall"

By Kurt Pitzer
Updated June 08, 2016 01:00 PM
Credit: Steve Liss/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

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.

In Muhammad Ali‘s three-decade journey from the pinnacle of human form to physical decrepitude brought on by Parkinson’s Disease, his fourth wife Lonnie became the ultimate caretaker and made sure he “was living like a king,” according to a family friend who was among the last to visit the couple.

“It was a beautiful love story,” John Ramsey told PEOPLE. “He had masseuses come in; if he had a cold, the best cold doctor was there. He was living how you would want him to live, and I give that credit to Lonnie.”

“An angel,” Lionel Richie, one of the couple’s close friends, called her. “He was dedicated to Lonnie, and she was the saint of life to take that on her shoulders and make sure he was taken care of.”

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Formerly Lonnie Williams – who had loved Ali since she lived across the street from him in Louisville when she was 6 and he was 21 – she saw the first signs of his disease in the early ’80s. “I met him for lunch,” she said, “and he stumbled getting off the hotel elevator. Something was obviously wrong.”

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Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, and two years later he married Lonnie, a Vanderbilt grad with a head for business. Ali called her “the boss” because she brought a much-needed domestic discipline to his life, just as he was beginning to require vigilant care.

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“She had to represent him more and more,” Ramsey says, “and her care allowed him to keep making decisions about his life.”

Since his passing, Lonnie has taken courage from the boxing champ’s words. “When I start crying, I remember him saying, ‘Stand tall and straight, and be strong,’ and I find that helps me,” she told Ramsey shortly after Ali’s death. “I hear Muhammad’s voice.”