Still The Champ

65, retired and enjoying his new life in Paradise Valley, the Muhammad Ali of today is, some say, an even greater kind of hero


Published: AZ, April, 2007. Also reprinted in the Arizona Republic, March 24, 2007


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All through the auction portion of last year’s Celebrity Fight Night, an annual charity gala benefiting the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Scottsdale businessman John Scherer sat waiting for that one dream package to go up for bids, that special offering that could make him part with the $100,000 burning a hole in his wallet.

The auctions at Celebrity Fight Night, now in its 13th year, have become famous for presenting unique fantasy evenings for the well-heeled, and tonight’s was no exception.

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Dinner and an L.A. Lakers game with Magic Johnson? Sold, for $80,000. Private tennis lesson with Andre Agassi ($70,000)? A day on the movie set with Robin Williams ($190,000)? Dinner with Paul Newman ($80,000)? Sold!

But Scherer, CEO and founder of the Video Professor line of PC tutorial CDs, managed to sit through the entire cavalcade of celebrity dream dates without once raising his hand.

Finally, during dinner, Scherer called over a CFN representative and made his own offer on the one experience he’d been wishing for his whole life, ever since he heard a certain “loudmouthed kid” named Cassius Clay taunt world heavyweight champ Sonny Liston that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” before a radio-broadcast bout in 1964. Nine days after taking Liston’s title, following a conversion to the Nation of Islam faith, that 22-year-old kid would famously rename himself Muhammad Ali.

“I just want to meet him,” says Scherer, who ultimately offered a donation of $100,000 just to shake hands with his idol. For his generous pledge, Scherer was granted a private moment backstage with the Champ, his wife, Lonnie, and daughters Jamillah, Rasheda and Laila.

Scherer couldn’t tell if Ali responded after Scherer told him how long he’d been a fan. After 23 years of battling pugilistic Parkinson's syndrome, a late-blooming form of the neurological disorder brought on by repeated blows to the head during his boxing days, the former Louisiana Lip now only talks in the slightest of whispers. Still, it was enough.

“It was worth every penny!” Scherer says, breaking into a huge smile. “I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel that I could do it.”

Right At Home

Of course, not everyone in the Valley has to cough up a hundred grand to shake hands with The Greatest – especially now that Muhammad and Yolanda “Lonnie” Ali have taken up residence in their new home in Paradise Valley.

“Oh yeah, you’ll probably run into us at A.J.’s now,” says the personable Lonnie. “Muhammad goes to the grocery with me. Now that’s an excursion!”

The fourth Mrs. Ali, who actually first met the Champ when he was 22 and she was 6 (their mothers lived across the street from each other in Louisville, KY), has been Muhammad’s constant companion since 1986. The love story she can tell – “At 17, I knew that I was going to marry Muhammad some day” – is sweet enough to make a best-selling book, and someday probably will.

At the moment, though, Lonnie is too busy being a baseball mom to her and Muhammad’s 16-year-old son, Asaad, who goes to St. Mary’s High School, and keeping her famous husband from eating all the produce and sweets before she gets to the check-out line.

“I don’t know if Muhammad ever went to the grocery before he was married to me,” she says, laughing. “He doesn’t understand that just because it’s in a bin, that doesn’t mean you can eat it! He’ll go in A.J.’s and take a cookie out of the bin and start eating it. Or he’ll go through the frozen food aisle and open up a box of ice cream sandwiches, and start eating that. Of course, everybody in the store thinks it’s amusing.”

As taxing as it may be playing Marge Simpson to Muhammad’s Homer – “He does whatever he wants to do” – keeping Muhammad out in the public is one of Lonnie’s most important jobs.

“He just genuinely loves people,” she says. “It’s like Hana [Ali’s 31-year-old daughter, one of his nine children] says, ‘He needs people like we need the air to breathe.’ He feeds off the positive energy – children delight him to no end. And he really gets something from being around everyone, no matter who it is.”

He doesn’t get out every day. Lonnie says Ali’s Parkinson’s treatments require five days of physical therapy a week, and that every three or four months, he checks in with his personal physical at Emory University in Atlanta. He also pays regular visits to the world-class Parkinson’s center at Barrow that bears his name, which was part of the reason the Ali’s decided to buy a home in the Valley. That, and the warm weather – which Lonnie says seems to be helping the Champ.

“He’s actually doing a lot better here,” she says, noting that the couple moved in 2006 from Michigan, where they still have a home. In January, they also purchased a nearly $2 million home in their shared home state of Kentucky, but Lonnie expects they’ll be spending a lot of their time here. “Milder climate and blue skies. Muhammad loves it.”

Among the neighbors in their wealthy gated community, Muhammad is a bit of an anomaly. “Money means nothing to him,” Lonnie says. “Other than he enjoys estimating the cost of things – that’s kind of a game for him.”

When it comes to dining out, Ali will sometimes make a late-night stop at Tarbell’s, where he recently surprised diners after a Phoenix Suns game and wound up making a tablecloth drawing for some of them. But he’s just as likely to drop in on Denny’s.

“One of his favorite spots is 5 and Diner!” Lonnie says, breaking into a hearty laugh. “Why? Because it reminds him of his childhood, I think. But it’s also just a normal diner with regular, everyday people. And that’s the kind of people Muhammad likes.”

Man of the People

Other people Ali enjoys spending time with are those going through difficult challenges, as he is himself today.

At least once a year, he visits the sick and recovering children at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center occupies a floor in the Barrow tower. Just before last Christmas, he also paid a surprise visit – his third in five years – to the poor in line at the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchens.

“That’s really his people,” says friend and Celebrity Fight Night founder Jimmy Walker. “I think he would rather be in the company of the homeless and people who are sick than celebrities, by far.”

Walker says Ali’s last visit to St. Vincent de Paul’s Jackson Street dining room was originally scheduled as a quick 15-minute meet-and-greet.

“Two and a half hours later, after he hugged and kissed and shook hands with what must have been a thousand homeless people, we left. Same thing when we went to St. Joseph’s over the holidays. He went in the children’s ward and he was passing out candy canes and teddy bears and hugging and kissing these little kids. It’s what he does. He stops. He signs every autograph. He hugs.”

Walker says he’s occasionally caught Ali at home wallowing in nostalgia, watching one of his old fights or a Rocky movie on TV and listening to Elvis. But Lonnie says that’s a rare day for the Champ, and that he’s usually itching to get out somewhere: to a magic shop, to a homeless shelter, or just to the corner store.

“He’s not gonna sit in a chair and be complacent and watch television all day,” Lonnie says. “That’s not Muhammad. And what purpose would he have? Just because you have some sort of physical ailment – as so many people do – that doesn’t mean you give up on life. And he never will.

“He’s a fighter,” she adds – as if anyone needs a reminder. “He’s never gonna allow Parkinson’s, or anything else, to dictate his life. He’s just not going to do it.”

An Inspiration

Not everyone likes it that Muhammad Ali continues to get out of the house so often. In Sports Illustrated's 65th birthday tribute to the Champ in January, writer Phil Taylor argued that many sports fans would prefer to remember Ali as he was, and get a little squirmy seeing their now frail, muted hero continue to lumber through so many public appearances.

Millions were inspired when Ali suddenly appeared carrying the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. They were less inspired when they saw Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade have to lift Ali out of his seat at the 2007 Orange Bowl.

“There’s no need for such appearances, Champ,” Taylor pleads. “You have inspired enough people for one lifetime. The next time someone comes calling, asking you to grace their event, feel free to say no.”

That’s not an option, says Lonnie. “He’s not uncomfortable getting out – they’re uncomfortable seeing him. Because they can’t stand the idea – and I quite understand this – that a man who had such physical beauty and grace of movement and athletic power could be so affected by a disease. But it only makes you know that he’s human.”

Indeed, there are even more admirers who feel the Champ’s most courageous and inspiring fight is the one he’s been openly waging with Parkinson’s since being diagnosed with the disease in 1984. In fact, some say it’s his continued engagement with the public – particularly with the poor and sick, mirrors of his past and his present self – that will ultimately form his greatest legacy.

“It’s not so much that he’s struggled with Parkinson’s, it’s how he’s managed it,” says Dr. Robert Spetzler, director of the Barrow Neurological Institute. “He hasn’t crawled into a hole,” Spetzler says. “He’s demonstrated how active you can be, despite a very significant physical deficit. To make the effort that he does, in his state, to be present and help others with that disease, is just remarkable. The message is: you can be a complete person, despite what you may be missing physically or mentally.”

Steve Zabilski, executive director of the five St. Vincent de Paul dining rooms in Phoenix, says he’s seen some of the soup kitchen regulars transformed by Ali’s visits. Children of homeless families see the shuffling gentle giant first as one of them – then they spy the respect and admiration in their parents’ eyes, and learn some greatness may be hidden in everybody.

“I think it’s that respect and dignity he brings to those struggling and suffering – as he is today – that he’ll be most remembered for,” Zabilski says. “More so than his days in the boxing ring.”

Lonnie agrees. “If anything, I think his physical challenges have given Muhammad another dimension,” she says. “Because in his prime, there were people who felt Muhammad was almost super-human, and didn’t have these frailties of regular human beings. I witnessed that. I saw the way people acted around him. Now, I actually think his challenges have made him more real for a lot of people.”

As for the mighty mouth, Lonnie says it can still produce a commanding roar when it wants. But after following Ali from schoolgirl crush to the devotion required of a full-time caregiver, Lonnie can read her soulmate without his speaking a lot of words.

“See, that’s another problem. I can read his signals. He’ll get a look on his face, and I know exactly what he wants.

“That’s not a good thing,” she adds quickly, with another hearty laugh. “Because if I couldn’t read him so well, he’d probably have to make more of an effort. And then people wouldn’t complain about him being so quiet all the time!”

— end —

Photos courtesy the Arizona Republic and Celebrity Fight Night

image 1Muhammad Ali tries to get the attention of then 1-year-old Maryssa Martin during a visit to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix in 1999.

image 1Tony Ventura of Avondale, 10 at the time of the Champ's 1999 visit to St. Joseph’s, gives Ali a hug.

image 1The Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix.

image 1Muhammad Ali shows off his signature stance at Celebrity Fight Night held April 2, 2005 at the Arizona Biltmore Resort in Phoenix

Celebrity Fight Night

Many powerful men, from Sonny Liston to Joe Frazier to George Foreman, have felt the unforgettable sting of Muhammad Ali’s knockout punch.

Valley businessman and philanthropist Jimmy Walker has only felt the annoying tingle of Ali’s ear-flick.

“There’s this thing he does while you’re driving,” Walker says, laughing. “If he’s in the back seat, he’ll flick your ear with his finger. Or he’ll start snoring, and you’re thinking he’s just tired or not feeling well. Then after about five minutes, he’ll suddenly jump at you and yell. He’s just playing with you, trying to fake you out.”

Clearly Parkinson’s and old age haven’t dulled the trademark Ali wit.

“I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. He always has a smile on his face,” Walker says of his famous friend. “Who wouldn’t want to be around that?”

It’s that undefeatable personality of the Celebrity Fight Night’s perennial guest of honor that continues to draw A-list stars to the annual charity fundraiser. Since its inaugural night in 1994 – featuring a comic bout between former Phoenix Suns teammates Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle – the event has raised over $38 million for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at BNI, dedicated to the fighter shortly after his coming onboard in 1996 as the CFN’s official honoree.

This year marks the tenth in a row that Ali’s come out for the evening – held March 24 at JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort in Phoenix – and that alone, Walker says, makes the event an easy sell to celebrities.

Previous participants have included Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, Robin Williams, Barry Manilow, Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks. This year’s headliner is Diana Ross, who Walker approached after spotting her in the audience for “Jersey Boys” on Broadway.

“As soon as I mentioned Muhammad’s name, she had a huge smile,” says Walker.

“She loves Muhammad. Everybody does.”

image 1The Ali center on the Barrow Neurological Institute’s 7th floor is wallpapered with both classic Ali portraits and recent photos of him striking maybe too good-natured poses at the end of various Hollywood fists. Seeing Ali lean his face into Dion’s girly uppercut is enough to make any fight fan yell, “Time out!” (Top to bottom) Ali with: Chevy Chase and wife; Fight Night founder Jimmy Walker; Celine Dion and Steve Nash and Magic Johnson.