FIGHT LIKE YOU’RE THE GREATEST!

Legal disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. Before I retired, I was a Lutheran Pastor. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in April of 2021.  Everything that follows comes from books, articles, testimonials, and magazines I have read, watched, and listened to. I am eager to share what I have learned and experienced in the hope that it might help someone else going through the same thing. You should discuss the application of these ideas with your medical team.

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The Boxer Muhammad Ali, used to declare, “I am the greatest!!” meaning he was the greatest boxer alive. He would then prove how great he was by beating almost every opponent that climbed in the ring with him. Although he died in 2014, people still speak of him with a lot of respect. In fact, many boxers like Mike Tyson, George Forman and Joe Frazier agree that Ali was indeed the greatest.   In 1999 he was declared the Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated.  The BBC named him the Sports Personality of the Twentieth Century.

This is the first in a three-part series in which we will look at some of the things Muhammad Ali went through and what we can learn from those situations. Applying the lessons from his life to our own will help us fight Parkinsons Disease and live a longer, better life.

To be a good boxer, one must be physically fit, mentally sharp, and spiritually alive; the same thing holds true for those with Parkinson’s Disease. If we are in poor shape, we must find a way to move toward a new level of physical, mental, and spiritual fitness. To improve our physical fitness, we must pay attention to our diet, amount of sleep, and daily exercise. Maintaining a good mental and spiritual health will go a long way in empowering us to continue even when things look absolutely hopeless.

One spiritual gift or mental strength Muhammad Ali had that made him a champion was perseverance. No matter what life threw at him he wouldn’t give up. One example of this happened in 1966 when he was found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing title and, because of this, the boxing commissions in all fifty states forbade him to fight in their state. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court and in 1971 his conviction was overturned. Ali had gone four years without entering a ring to face an opponent. For an athlete the years that he lost would be considered the years of peak performance and could never be given back.  Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer said, “One thing must be taken into account when talking about Ali; he was robbed of his best years, his prime years.”[1]

Ali could have thrown a pity party. He could have said, “The man took away my best years. At one time I was a great boxer, I won Olympic gold when I was only eighteen years old. But that was nothing compared to beating Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964 and wining the Heavy Weight Championship of the World!! Everyone knew I was going to take a beating…. I was only 22 years old, the youngest boxer to EVER [2] take a title from a reigning heavyweight champion. I showed them. Well, it’s all over now.” 

Thank God, that’s not what happened. Muhammad Ali continued to train. Every day, for four years, he lifted weights, jumped rope, ran, and hit the bags, because he knew life wasn’t over yet.

Ali had the Eye of the Tiger, which means that his focus was on the goal of regaining the Title. He had the gift of perseverance but what empowers perseverance is faith and hope.  Without hope for the future there is no power in the present. How does a person continue to prepare for an uncertain future, without faith in God to guide and hope that it will come to pass? Stop and think for a minute about Ali’s ability to continue to train, day after day, week after week, year after year, uncertain of the outcome when his case came before the Supreme court.

In the same way we must begin an exercise program in the hope that it will slow down the symptoms of Parkinson’s. I have read many testimonies of people who were in terrible physical shape and the right exercise program worked wonders for them. For example, on You Tube there’s a video of a man who can barely walk. We see this guy struggling to walk over to his bike but once he gets on the bike he rides like a youngster. Studies have shown huge improvements for many people who ride bikes. Peddling for Parkinson’s is a program that has helped thousands of people gain and maintain a better life,

As soon as I was diagnosed with Parkinsons, I read everything I could find to see what to expect and what I could do to improve the situation. I read about the Big and Loud Therapy and found videos of people involved with it on You Tube. My Neurologist referred me to the Therapy Department at the St. Joseph/University of Michigan Hospital in Chelsea, Michigan. This is such a great program for people with Parkinson’s.

During this time, I was asked to help with a funeral service at a church I had previously served at. Because my speech was so bad, (sometimes I couldn’t understand myself), I did not want to do the service. Joy Fried, the Speech Therapist, worked with me using the funeral service from the Lutheran Hymnal. The day before the funeral we recorded my part of the service. As we listened to the recording, I was deeply moved by how much improvement there was in my voice. Thanks to the dedication of Ms. Fried, the funeral went off without me wrecking it.

The Big and Loud Therapy sessions include, Speech, Occupational and Physical Therapy.  My sessions ended on the 30th of August. Thank God I took this program. The week after the therapy ended, I was on Isle Royale National Park with my daughter Michelle and my son Zachary. We had planned on hiking eight miles a day across the entire forty-seven-mile length of the Island. Even though much of the island is swampy I wasn’t concerned because the brochures spoke of boardwalks across the swamps. In my mind a boardwalk is three to four feet wide, with handrails. Forget about it!! On Isle Royale a board walk is a board that is 12 inches wide and two inches thick and is as long as it needs to be and as high off the ground as it needs to be to be level. When I first started the therapy sessions, I couldn’t do the heel to toe walk, (like the police have you do if they think you are DUI.) The boardwalks were not a problem for me only because of the excellent therapists in the Big and Loud Program.  

On March 8, 1971, Joe Frazier faced Muhamad Ali, in what was called, The Fight of The Century because neither man had lost a fight, and both had a legitimate claim to the Title.

The fight went Fifteen rounds. “Crouching, bobbing and weaving Frazier constantly pressured Ali, getting hit regularly by Ali’s jabs and combinations. No matter what Ali threw at him Frazier would counterattack hitting hard and scoring points. It was the most difficult fight of Ali’s career. In the final round Frazier hit Ali with a vicious left hook, knocking him to the mat. In his first professional defeat, Ali lost by a unanimous decision.

If you’re like me, right now you are thinking, “What?? That is not how this is supposed to end!!” In the words of the wise, “It aint over until it’s over.” This demonstrates that even the Greatest had times of discouragement. In those times there is a decision to be made. Will I be emotion driven or spirit led. That is will I allow my emotions to make a temporary setback into a permanent defeat? Or will I regroup, train harder and keep my eye on the goal?

When we went to Florida in January, my plan was to enroll in Rock Steady Boxing and in Peddling for Parkinson’s.  I attempted to ride my sister’s bike and couldn’t. If you had been watching me, trying to get her bike down the road you would have thought I was totally drunk. I weaved back and forth from one side of the road to the other. I contacted the person in charge of Peddling for Parkinson’s and was told that the class wouldn’t meet until the end of March.

I signed up for Rock Steady Boxing and began attending the classes which were held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I went to the classes as often as I could but by the end of February was feeling kind of discouraged. I thought I would have more improvement in energy and walking abilities. We had to return to Michigan by March 8th. As we cleaned up the house and garage, I noticed the bike still sitting where I had left it after the disastrous ride. I thought, “I think I’ll give it another go,’ and jumped on it. I was amazed because I had no difficulties at all riding the bike. My discouragement was a lie. Just because I didn’t see or feel improvements didn’t mean that there weren’t any.   

In 1972 Ali had six fights and won them all. In 1973 Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw causing the second loss of his career. This was one of the lowest points of his career and he considered retirement.

I am sure that Muhammad didn’t have any idea of how difficult it was going to be to regain the title of Heavyweight champion of the World. Like Ali, we don’t really know what lies ahead. After all, I keep hearing, “if you’ve seen one Parkinson’s patient you’ve seen one Parkinson’s patient. “However, if one thing isn’t working, we will have to try something new.

A few days before we left Florida, I got a phone call from my cousin. Her husband had died, and she wanted me to do the funeral. The service was going to be held at 11:00 am on Friday and we would be flying into Detroit at 10:30 PM on Thursday.

I agreed and was at the funeral home by 9 o’clock Friday Morning. Lack of sleep and lack of preparation set me up for an embarrassing situation. (Oh, did I mention that I hadn’t been doing my LOUD exercises?) I had trouble speaking in a manner that people could understand what I was saying. I can no longer speak and think at the same time. I was embarrassed and feel that it would be best if I do not speak in public again.  

I have been approved for more sessions of Speech Therapy, so who knows what I might or might not be able to do.

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Please continue to pray for us and be sure we are praying for you.

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