'The Emotion Was Too Much for Him': Laila Ali Opened Up About Her Dad's Illness Just Months Before His Death

'That man continues to put me in awe' she told PEOPLE earlier this year

Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images for HBO

Less than three month’s before Muhammad Ali‘s death, his daughter Laila opened up about his strength despite his dwindling health.

In an interview with PEOPLE in early March, Laila said that her father was in good spirits and “knows what’s going on around him,” despite the Parkinson’s disease he had been fighting for more than 30 years.

“That man continues to put me in awe. He’s such a fighter, still, when at times he seems weak and not able to handle it,” she said. “He comes through stronger than ever. He’s still fighting regardless and I love my dad for that.”

Laila, 38, also shared that it was a “struggle” to watch her children, Curtis Jr., 7 1/2, and Sydney, 5, realize their wheelchair-bound grandfather wouldn’t be around forever, beginning when Curtis Jr. saw a picture of “Papa” with Martin Luther King Jr.

“He knows a grandpa that can’t walk or talk anymore, and to see him next to MLK, to him a guy of the past, made him confused,” Laila said. “He was like, ‘Papa knows MLK, they were together?’ It was a surreal moment for him because it placed someone he knows now in history.”

She continued: “The next day he came back to me and started talking about death. He had put together that MLK Jr. had passed away and that Papa might, too. He said, ‘I don’t want you to die, Papa!’ It was a tender moment I’ll never forget. The emotion was too much for him, he covered his face. He couldn’t process it.”

FROM SI: Remembering Muhammad Ali, 1942 – 2016

Muhammad Ali died Friday at the age of 74 in a Phoenix-area hospital where he had spent the past few days being treated for respiratory complications.

“After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening. The Ali family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers and support and asks for privacy at this time,” spokesman Bob Gunnell said in a statement.

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