Doctor who diagnosed Muhammad Ali with Parkinson's speaks out

NEW YORK -- The biggest fight of Muhammad Ali's life was his battle with Parkinson's disease. To the trained eye, signs were apparent even as Ali was at the pinnacle of his career.

It was a thing of beauty: the Ali shuffle, a blur of movement that befuddled opponents and delighted fans. Years later, it morphed into a shuffling gait -- a classic sign of Parkinson's.

Muhammad Ali's memorial service held in Louisville

And the "Louisville lip" gave way to silence.

Dr. Stanley Fahn, a neurologist specializing in Parkinson's, was the first doctor to diagnose his condition. It was 1984.

"It was a slowness of movement that was his limiting factor at that time," Fahn told CBS News. "I saw immediately he had a masked face, that is, decreased expression. He had decreased blinking, and he had a typical Parkinson's tremor."

Parkinson's is most common in older adults. Ali was only 42.

"I thought some of the symptoms were too early for classic Parkinson's," Fahn said. "This was most likely going to be due to some trauma, multiple traumas to the head."

His handlers told Fahn they noticed Ali slowing down. He was not as quick as usual at the famous "Thrilla in Manila" fight against Joe Frazier in 1975 -- almost a decade earlier.

"You have slowness of movement, slows his reaction time, and that probably led to him being beaten up too much in the ring -- and that probably worsened the trauma to his brain," Fahn said.

The boxer once so fleet of foot could not sidestep his illness. But he raised awareness of Parkinson's and became a champion for others living with the disease.

No surprise. That's what a champion does.

Even as his illness progressed, Ali remained a figure of grace under pressure. He helped raise more than $100 million for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook