IN HIS CORNER
In his wife Lonnie, Muhammad Ali has a true champion as a caregiver
Photograph by Fran Collin
A legend in and out of the ring, he was the only boxer to win the heavyweight championship three times. But these days Muhammad Ali is fighting his most relentless opponent: Parkinson's disease. And just as fighters have someone ringside to encourage them, he has a dedicated partner in his corner now—his wife, Yolanda (Lonnie) Ali.
They've known each other since she was a child in their mutual hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. "Our mothers were friends and we were always in each other's home," she recalls. Lonnie, now a vibrant 50-year-old, remembers being "awestruck" by the young fighter 15 years her senior. For his part, Muhammad teased that he'd marry Lonnie when she grew up. They remained friends throughout the tumultuous decades that included his 61 professional bouts, legal battles with the U.S. government and three marriages. And, in 1986, Muhammad Ali kept his word and married Lonnie.
In the meantime, Lonnie earned a degree in psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and an MBA from UCLA. "But I never worked in corporate America," she says, "just Corporate Ali." She's referring to their company, G.O.A.T., Inc., which she managed for 17 years until they sold it in 2006. ("GOAT" was the nickname given Muhammad by his managers years ago; it stands for Greatest Of All Time.)
Lonnie had no idea that her main "job" would be as a fulltime caregiver. As early as 1977, Muhammad showed signs of what doctors termed "neurological damage." The reflexes in his athletic body were noticeably slowing and the witty, rapid-fire verbosity that had earned him the epithet "The Louisville Lip" was becoming slurred. Doctors at first suspected a thyroid condition, but the diagnosis was ultimately Parkinson's, forcing Muhammad to retire from boxing in 1981. Despite the widespread rumor that his condition was caused by repeated blows to his head taken in the ring, Lonnie insists there's no proof of that. And although she was aware of his condition when they married, she says she "wasn't frightened of illness, maybe because I'd grown up with a father who had polio."
The most challenging part of being a "care partner," as she calls herself, is managing the strenuous regimen of meds. "I know firsthand the challenges that occur daily for many PD patients and caregivers as regards medications," she says. "Many patients have to take up to twenty pills a day and suffer uncomfortable side effects that make it unbearable for both patient and caregiver." It's especially difficult for her to persuade her husband to take them.
"Muhammad never liked taking medications, probably because he's an athlete and never took anything, not even vitamins." Some time ago Lonnie thought of having their adopted son, Asaad, give him the medications. "Muhammad responds so well to children. He found it harder to say no to Asaad than to me," she laughs. But, she admits that now that Asaad is a teenager (16), that ploy no longer works as well.
PD is a progressive disorder of the central nervous system, and is both physically and mentally debilitating. "It affects more than just those who have the disease," Lonnie says candidly. "It has profoundly impacted our entire family and close friends who've watched the changes physically and in Muhammad's demeanor."
This has been especially hard for Asaad. "He grew up seeing his friends' parents interacting more. Parkinson's cost Asaad time with his dad and also with me because so many times I had to be with Muhammad." Fortunately, Asaad had great mentors who filled in for Muhammad and spent quality time with him. Among them were Asaad's basketball and baseball coaches, the father of a close friend and a young man hired to assist with Asaad while Lonnie worked and traveled. Muhammad's children from his previous marriages and relationships are all much older than Asaad and don't live with Muhammad and Lonnie, so they haven't played a big part in Asaad's upbringing and development, she explains. They include a son, Muhammad Ali, Jr., and seven daughters—Maryum, Hana, Miya, Khaliah and Laila, as well as twins Rasheda and Jamilla. Rasheda writes children's books about PD, and both she and Maryum participate in Parkinson's events.
"Muhammad dotes on his children," Lonnie says. But he wasn't happy about his "baby," Laila, following in his footsteps by becoming a professional boxer in 1999. "Women aren't made to be hit in the breast and face like that," he said. But he's proud that she's never lost a fight.
One of the most common effects of PD is a chemical imbalance that causes anxiety and depression, for which Muhammad receives medication. Perhaps the most potent antidote, however, is the amount of activity in which Lonnie keeps him engaged. "Muhammad likes to draw landscapes," she says, "especially mountains and oceans. And he likes to read books about various religions, including the Bible and the Qur'an." But Lonnie stresses that it's also important for Muhammad to interact with people. "We try to have something new to do each day. He has physical therapy and we do spontaneous things, like going to restaurants and on small trips."
Though Muhammad traveled globally as a celebrated "statesman for peace," his trips away from the Paradise Valley, Arizona, home, where he lives with Lonnie and Asaad, are now far fewer and limited to this country. The one journey that brought him back to the global limelight took place in July 1996. The Olympic Summer Games Committee invited him to light the ceremonial flame at the opening ceremonies. Asked if she'd encouraged him to do this, Lonnie laughs. "Muhammad didn't need encouragement! This was such a great honor."
Because of the tremors in his hands, it was uncertain whether he'd be able to manage the torch. He practiced ahead of time in the empty arena. Opening night, some 3.5 billion people around the globe watched on TV as he accepted the torch and, despite the trembling in his hands, held it over the device that would light the ceremonial cauldron. But the device wouldn't cooperate! For almost 30 seconds, Muhammad stood there resolutely holding the torch until the flame finally shot up. "That's when I let out a breath," Lonnie says. The ovation from the 80,000 people in the stadium was an emotional tribute to Muhammad Ali's courage.
On their nineteenth wedding anniversary (November 19, 2005), the couple dedicated the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. The $60 million non-profit center displays memorabilia from Muhammad's life and career, and also promotes causes about which both are concerned: world peace and understanding among different races and nations. Lonnie serves as the board of directors' vice-chair.
Lonnie also is a dedicated activist with Fight For MORE, a national campaign launched in April in conjunction with Valeant Pharmaceuticals International. The campaign's goal is to raise $100,000 to fund research and educate people about PD, which afflicts some 1.5 million Americans and for which there's no known cause or cure. This work gives her "the greatest joy," Lonnie says, "because I'm inspiring other caregivers." Connecting with people all over the world, she adds, energizes her.
Muhammad also believes he's a "tool to help others," she notes. He believes that he was given his illness for that reason "and to strengthen his character and faith. He's always had a positive approach. It's permeated his life."
It's an approach they share. As she says, "We focus on what he can do, not on what he can't."