Requiem for a Brain

It was reported, again and again, Muhammad Ali died of complications related to Parkinson’s Disease. However, such reports were wrong.  Among the world wide accolades this magnificent man received, there was  only muted attention  to the tragedy of his life and how it could have been different. His death was, indeed, a tragedy  because this  remarkable man, called without debate, the Greatest of All Time,  did not die of natural causes at the age of 74.

It was a tragedy because the very thing he  brought to the world, his physical talents, his courage and unabashed confidence were the very things that brought him down.  Repeated, purposeful brain trauma is not a natural cause of death. The story could have been different.

His profound decline and death were directly  related to the repeated blows to the head he received in his boxing career. He had a progressive neurological condition that had the external characteristics of paralysis agitans or Parkinson’s Disease, which is a kinder  more politically correct diagnosis, avoiding or not confronting  the truth: Muhammad Ali died because there is a rabid, world wide audience with a thirst  to watch  men try to injure the brain of their opponent.  A knockout is the result of bashing the head of someone until they are unconscious.

No doubt Muhammad captured our attention and  entertained us, both in and outside the ring. However,  his opponents ultimately did achieve their goal of damaging his brain. Please, lets not sweeten the story with an inaccurate euphemism;   this was not early onset Parkinson’s. In truth he was “punch drunk,” and suffered from a disease well described in 80 years ago as Dementia Pugilistica. Muhammad was the greatest, and he battled courageously to not let this disorder change his dignity.  His traumatically battered brain  finally threw in the towel.

Despite being the greatest, Muhammad could not avoid  all the blows directed at his head by his heavyweight opponents.  His brain was no less vulnerable because he was so talented. There was no seminal event that began the process of neurological deterioration. Just like the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopthey now well documented in football players, Muhammad’s brain damage was the result of multiple repeated blows to the head over time.

Perhaps the bell began to toll for him with his first fight with Joe Frazier in March of 1971. He was 28 years old, had experienced  three and a half years of inactivity because he bravely declined to enter the military. Sports Illustrated (SI) tersely described the fight:

“Ali fought comparatively flat-footed, his featherweight  footwork replaced with resolve, and with an iron jaw.  Though Frazier’s face would soon take on the aspects  of a patchwork quilt, it was Ali’s swollen jaw that was  the most telling evidence in Frazier’s win by decision.  A left hook in the 11th nearly sent Ali into the celebrities’  laps. Another in the 15th dropped him.”

There is no historical information indicating either fighter considered retiring from the ring after the first fight. Both Frazier and Ali continued to fight and both lost their next bouts: Frazier was annihilated by George Foreman in the worst beating I personally have even seen in a boxing contest on television.  In March 1973 Ali lost a decision to Ken Norton.  Inexplicably, Foreman and Ali had a second fight; Muhammad won, “fighting more cleverely than bravely this time,” according to SI.

The coup de grace for Muhammad’s brain was the next decision he made, at age 32,  to fight George Foreman In October 1974.  Much is made of the decision to fight in Zaire,  Africa: “The trip was the basis for his development as a world citizen, when he first recognized his ability to gather different cultures about  him,” according to SI.  He could have visited Africa to great acclaim without putting his brain at further risk.  Still he chose to fight the younger and stronger  Foreman with a strategy celebrated in perpetuity as “rope-a-dope.”  SI gives lip service to the damage he would sustain with this maneuver:

“The game plan at first appeared suicidal but then, as Foreman grew arm-weary, brilliant. Although Ali  suffered the kind of punishment that can take years to fully manifest itself, the tactic did result in an  amazing victory when he took Foreman out in the eighth round.”

It is said that this victory in Africa made Muhammad Ali the most famous man alive. There other monumental consequence of the bout, the inexorable progressive neurological decline.  But he was not finished. If he was advised by someone in regard to the damage his brain must have sustained, he did not heed such consultation, and he scheduled a third fight with Frazier in October 1975: the “Thrilla in Manila.” Sports Illustrated did not white wash this contest.

“The last fight in the Ali-Frazier trilogy, the one that  damaged both men beyond repair. It was another  brutal, in which each fighter’s skills were revealed as thin veneers for a horrifying toughness beneath; each was willing to accept near-fatal blows in the  hope of winning a terrifying war of attrition. Ali, who later recalled the bout as ‘the closest thing  to death I know,’ prevailed when Frazier’s trainer  Eddie Furch refused to let him come out for the  15th round.”

Still, Muhammad Ali did not retire. No doubt the dye was caste in regard to his neurological decline, and his remaining fights “deepened the devastation of pugilistic parkinsonism, an artifact of his competitive drive,” in the words of  SI’s Richard Hoffer.

In multiple published tributes to this remarkable man it has been said even in decline Muhammad was never bitter and did not recognize the tragedy his gifts– physically and spiritually that made his an iconic image so powerful–  were the very instrument of his painful decline.  Of course he did not recognize the Irony and tragic course of his life. In a tribute in the June 20th edition of The New Yorker David Remnick stated, “Ali, the most extraordinary athlete of the past century, was ordinary only in his refusal to stop.”

What is the portion of our psyche, our soul, that requires our heroes’  need to constantly prove their valor again and again, until they are driven to their knees.? Perhaps it is our own need, as well as their need, to finally prove, after all, that they are just as human and just as vulnerable as all of us.   Possibly, the greatest legacy Muhammad Ali can provide is that even the greatest has a brain that is assailable and needs constant, careful guardianship.