They resembled each other. Sunken faces, arms thinner with leg size to match, a shell of themselves from their years being the men we knew them to be. Many years ago my grandfather Willie P. Davis passed away from Parkinson's disease, the same disease that carried the greatest professional athlete of the 20th Century into the realms of eternity. Parkinson's disease took a man known to the world for his classic battles such as "Thrilla in Manilla" and "Rumble In The Jungle" slowly down to the canvas of life.
They weren't the same individual, but they both were loved. Known for their wit, humor and strength, they are both missed. I imagine Muhammad Ali wasn't much of himself in the last few years. My grandfather had trouble eating, walking, sleeping and speaking without daily assistance. No one knows why my grandfather caught Parkinson's. We thought it was from his employment as a welder. Many think Muhammad Ali's decline and Parkinson's onset was from his controversial bout with the bruising puncher and champion Larry Holmes. Holmes didn't want to fight Ali, but Ali fought his way to Larry Holmes. Not just for the love of the sport, but also for a purse of $8 million. Before the bout, doctors checked Ali's health and the signs of Parkinson were there. At the time, Ali was suffering from an imbalanced Thyroid. He was prescribed Thyrolar and had no business fighting that evening. Historical accounts state Ali took two pills of Thyrolar, causing him to feel sluggish, fatigued, increasing his heart rate and blood pressure. Ali's former physician, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, said "Ali was a walking time-bomb in the ring that night. He could have had anything from a heart attack to a stroke to all kinds of bleeding in the head."
Ali lost that night. He would fight and lose again a year later for the final time. His fight outside the ring was just beginning.
In 1984 I was born in Cleveland, Ohio as the first grandson to my grandfather. '84 was the year Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's. It would be 10 years later when my grandad would join him. My grandfather was born in Alabama and served in the Korean War.
Ali boycotted the infamous Vietnam War some 20 years later. Ali proudly said, "I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality."
My grandfather spent many days telling me about Ali and his acclaim as a black athlete. A man with hands as fast as fly swatters and the grace of a ballerina. My grandfather was proud of Ali and his courage to confront racism by standing up for black people. If they ever met, Ali would have told my Grandfather, "I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin' hell, but as long as they ain't free, I ain't free."
"I'ma keep running cause a winner don't quit on themselves.” - “Freedom,” Beyoncé.
Seeing my grandfather deteriorate from the intimidating, burly man I knew him to be, hurt. It was sad to see a man unable to care for himself when he spent his life caring for others. Ali's humanitarian efforts included being involved in 19 charities and 20 causes across the world. He even negotiated with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to release 15 American men held captive by the now-deceased dictator. Here is what you should know about this little-known trip. Ali was six years into Parkinson's, and while there, he ran out of medication. He could barely speak at the press conference with Saddam. Saddam said, “I'm not going to let Muhammad Ali return to the U.S., without having a number of the American citizens accompanying him.” Ali left with all 15 hostages.
One of my most fond memories of my grandfather was him walking down to the corner store with me. He gambled like Ali and took chances too... on lottery tickets. I didn't mind, because it was a chance to grab some candy and chill with my grandfather.
Parkinson's disease might have given my grandfather and Ali uncontrollable shaking, but it did not shake who they were as men.
We will forever love the smiles, silliness, courage and leadership exuded from such men. Parkinson's didn't kill Muhammad Ali or my Grandfather. They remained victorious until the final bell rang. Ding!
“All through my life, I have been tested. My will has been tested, my courage has been tested, my strength has been tested. Now my patience and endurance are being tested.” - Muhammad Ali 1942-2016