The fourth wife of Muhammad Ali, Lonnie Ali, is fighting to support and educate the caregivers of people with Parkinson's disease with her "Fight for More" campaign. Her heavyweight boxing champion husband was diagnosed in 1981 with the degenerative disorder of the nervous system. For more information on the campaign and resources, go to fightformore.com. She was in Pittsburgh this year as a guest speaker for the American Parkinson Disease Association (apdaparkinson.org).
Q:How is the campaign going?
It's a way of letting them know there is someone in their corner. I am so honored to be the face of the campaign. The progression of the disease differs in everyone. And now we are seeing it in young adults.
Q:I wonder if it's environmental?
Well, you know, I believe some of it is environmental. In fact, a leading researcher from Columbia University years ago realized from his research that Parkinson's can be caused by toxins in the blood. When Muhammad trained as a boxer in Deer Lake in Eastern Pennsylvania they used DDT on the vegetables. They found pesticides in his body. So we don't know for certain, but it is definitely a place where researchers are looking.
Q:What's it like being married to a living legend?
It has its ups and downs. Mostly ups. I'm a very positive person so I look at Muhammad's legacy where it will be a 100 years from now. Being married to that legend, I think it's part of my duty, guarding that legacy and making sure that it lives on forever.
Q:How does he handle his legendary status?
Muhammad just lives his life. He doesn't believe in being preachy or telling people what to do. His goal is to get to heaven. So that's what he's concerned about. He just hopes whatever he does in life gets him there.
Q:When you married him, how far along was the Parkinson's?
Actually the Parkinson's had just been diagnosed. I knew he had it, but it wasn't anything I was afraid of.
Q:Was it a tremor that caused him concern? Was it a result of boxing?
Actually the way he noticed the tremor was when he prayed. His thumb would twitch. So naturally with Muhammad being a boxer, people thought it was from his boxing. It really had nothing to do with boxing at all.
Q:Is it hereditary?
We really don't know. Researchers don't know. There is no hard evidence.
Q:You've known him since childhood?
I have known him since I was 6 or 7 and he was about 22. I met him right before he fought Sonny Liston for the first time. I was like the little girl next door. Literally. I knew him as Cassius Clay. I knew him before he changed his name.
Q:Was it odd being the fourth wife?
Well, you know, I actually have the advantage of having history with Muhammad, of having knowledge of all his prior wives. We come from the same town. We come from the same values. His mother and my mother were very good friends. I understand the fact that I only have possession of him, if you can ever possess anybody, in our private time. When Muhammad is out in public he belongs to the world.
Q:Are you a practicing Muslim?
Yes, I am. I converted from Catholicism when I was in my late 20s. Islam fit with me. I am not a fundamentalist. I hate to divide Islam into sects, but you know there's the Sunni and the Shiite. I have no problem with anybody being any religion they care to be because Muhammad says there are many paths to God.
Q:You and Muhammad must be concerned about how the extremist actions are coloring Islam.
It does sadden Muhammad. Muhammad only thinks the best of everybody, and he especially only thinks the best and wants the best of his religion and never ever showing the kind of violence that was exhibited on 9/11 and the kind of hatred. That never solved anything. The cost and the loss of life for what? It doesn't make sense to Muhammad. It troubles him deeply that Islam has taken on this violent shadow in the way people view it.
Q:How would you feel if your son went into boxing?
Well that's one of those sports I sort of banned when he was little. I actually banned football, but he is playing that now. I didn't care if he trained as a boxer. It's not something I want for him. You've sort of got to let go and let them find their own path.
Q:So, you worry about your step-daughter (Laila Ali) in the ring? A: I do. Muhammad and I both do. I was afraid of his reaction to seeing her hit. You know, his baby girl being hit by somebody. The one thing I can say about Laila is she is a true professional.