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Ali loves to watch the old Ali: daughter

U.S. boxing great Muhammad Ali poses during the Crystal Award ceremony at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 28, 2
U.S. boxing great Muhammad Ali poses during the Crystal Award ceremony at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 28, 2

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The boxer who pummeled opponents with his words as well as with his fast fists rarely talks these days, and his dazzling footwork is a memory frozen on video tape and in the minds of millions of admirers.

But the spirit and sparkle in 71-year-old Muhammad Ali's eyes live on through a 30-year struggle against the effects of Parkinson's disease, which has stricken about one million in the United States and six million worldwide.

His daughter, Maryum (May May) Ali, said the man who famously dubbed himself "The Greatest" gets a big kick from watching old footage of himself.

"That's his favorite pastime. He loves to watch himself. He loves it," May May told Reuters in an interview on the eve of the annual Parkinson's Unity Walk to advance awareness and education that drew thousands to Central Park on Saturday.

"It brings him joy, because he's not that person any more but he can live through his old self. He loves to watch his fights. I love to watch him watching."

Ali was ranked among the 20 most influential Americans ever last year by Time Magazine for his humanitarianism and the inspiration he provided to people around the globe.

While he has battled Parkinson's, a progressive disorder in which dopamine levels in the brain decline affecting messages to nerves controlling movement and coordination, May May champions efforts to help educate and promote research into the disease.

24-HOUR CARE

"He has 24-hour care and he needs assistance," May May, at 45 the oldest of his nine children, said noting that his condition had worsened over the last three years. "His speech isn't that great.

"But my father chills out. He watches the Super Bowl, and he gets massages. When I go visit him it's like a little sabbatical with him. I'm like chilling out with him."

A former rapper and comedian, an author and social activist, May May bears a strong resemblance to her father with her bright eyes, round face, pronounced cheekbones and spirit to match.

She sounds just like the great man himself when she lapses into some of his familiar patter, before reminiscing about his difficult times after first showing symptoms.

"I tell you what was hard for him. It was hard to go out and hear people talking about him," she said. "Because he was proud and he didn't want people feeling sorry for him, because I think he felt better than what they thought he looked like."

Maintaining family life was important, she said, which led her sister, Rasheda Ali, to write a book called 'I'll Hold Your Hand So You Won't Fall'. "It's actually a children's book for parents to know how to teach their kids about Parkinson's."

"My father's grandchildren thought my dad was sad or depressed, or didn't like them or didn't want to play, but it was just his face," May May said.

"It's called the Parkinson's mask, where the muscles in the face droop in a stoic look where you don't look like you have any emotion.

"His grandkids had watched old footage of him talking, acting crazy, rhyming, bragging...now they see him and they think ‘he's mad at us'. She (Rasheda) told them, 'look at his eyes, see how much fun he's having'."

FIRST SIGNS

"We saw slurring of the speech and slowness while he was (still) boxing," said May May. "So there's a really good chance that he had it much earlier than when he was diagnosed (in 1984).

"We were thinking that whatever he had was from boxing because other boxers have slurred speech."

She said her father was never in denial over his condition.

"He was like ‘something's happening' and he was trying to figure it out. He was dealing with it.

"The optimism he had, predicting rounds and calling the knockout and saying he was beautiful and standing up for his faith... he was always confident and optimistic. That was kind of how he was with his disease, too.

"He's the kind of guy that pushed his body to the limit. If boxing and what he went through in his career didn't put him down, he was not letting shaky hands stop him from going out. That's just his make-up."

Ali continued to travel the world for decades.

"He still travels," she said. "He has three homes - in his hometown of Louisville, in Michigan and in Arizona in the winter. You still see him at baseball games sometimes.

"He lives," she said. "His spirit is still the same."

May May said Ali communicates with his eyes, with his arms, and by "knocking", illustrating by clicking the roof of her mouth with her tongue. "I guess that's from his African roots.

"It hasn't been super sad for me until maybe the past three years because we have the education and understanding of it. That's everything, because you're able to enjoy them the way they are."

SPIRITUAL LIFE

May May said her father never looked back after finally leaving the ring. "He always felt boxing was a means to an end. And that end was to help and serve others."

She said Ali, who refused to fight in the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector following his conversion to Islam, grew more and more spiritual.

Ali had his world championship title taken away and his boxing licenses revoked before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction for his refusing induction.

"I think if he hadn't got Parkinson's he would be an Imam," May May said, projecting her father as a Muslim spiritual leader.

"He would have been one of the main people on TV defending true Islam and in the time we're living in right now, it would have been exceptional because people would have listened to him."

"He used to propagate Islam with pamphlets. Every time he would sign an autograph he would sign it on a Muslim pamphlet. That was his life. He spent all his time doing that. People don't know that."

May May said he was humbled by the response he engendered.

"'I met the prime minister of Pakistan. I was at the White House'," she recalled him saying. "'A little old boy from Louisville, Kentucky. Anything can happen, anything can come true'."

Despite being a world figure, Ali got giddy himself around some of his early idols.

"He would get excited when he saw Little Richard. He loved Little Richard," May May said. "He was tickled, tickled, tickled by James Brown. I would never see my Dad get excited, but if he saw one of them...he loved his music, his oldies."

Asked about his legacy, May May said: "Depends on who you are. If you are Aryan nation you're going to hate him for being a draft dodger.

"I used to ask him, 'how did you have the guts to stand up against the government?' He said, 'I learned who I truly was as a black man'.

"He knew he was an equal human being and no one was going to take that away from him. And that was more important to him than a boxing career.

"I'm a lot like my dad, and I'm proud to say it."

(Editing by Alison Wildey)

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