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Muhammad Ali and Jewish Doctor’s Friendship Started With Fight to End Parkinson’s

Abraham Lieberman had been Muhammad Ali’s doctor for a decade when in 1994 he came up with the idea of creating an institute for Parkinson’s, the disease he diagnosed Ali with in 1984, and implored the three-time world champion boxer for help.

Lieberman called Ali to ask if he would lend his name to the disease, as a way to increase funding and awareness, and to build a center. Ali invited Lieberman to his home in Berrien Springs, Michigan, the old Al Capone estate, and the two spent the day on the grounds. Ali repeatedly told Lieberman he didn’t want to be a poster boy. An hour before Lieberman had to leave, Ali finally turned to him and said, “Look, write me a letter.”

Lieberman flew home to Arizona that night — he’s originally from Brooklyn — to wrack his brain. He struggled to figure out what he might say and went to bed without any ideas. He asked himself, “What is Muhammad afraid of?” Not Parkinson’s, but aging. The next morning, Lieberman thought he would write a poem. One stanza read:

When I talked to you, and you said you didn’t want to be involved with Parkinson

The thought came to me, as it did to you

That you are retreating, back- pedaling

Fluttering like a moth

And buzzing, not stinging like a bee

Lieberman faxed the poem to the Ali household, and an hour later, Ali’s fourth wife, Lonnie Ali, called and said, “He’ll do whatever you want him to do.” From that, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at the Barrow Neurological Institute was founded.

Ali, who converted to Islam in the 70s, was laid to rest at in a Muslim funeral in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky after passing away on June 3 at age 74 from a 34-year battle with Parkinson’s. Today there will be an interfaith service at the KFC Yum Center there as a final goodbye to The Greatest.

Three days after Ali’s death, Lieberman participated in a press conference where he recalled stories from his longtime friendship with the boxer. He remembered the day he diagnosed Ali, who had already seen a number of other doctors and came to Lieberman for another opinion. Lieberman arrived to his office, then in New York, to find throngs of people in his waiting room. He thought for a second, “Wow, I’m really going to be busy today.”

One of the X-Ray technicians approached Lieberman then and asked if Ali would punch him in the arm. After seeing the patient, Lieberman asked if Ali would carry out the favor. For a month afterwards, the technician went around boasting, “Muhammad Ali hit me and I didn’t go down!”

In another anecdote, Ali feared a brain operation from a doctor in Mexico and when Lieberman mentioned the fact that Ali had spent his life in the ring with tough fighters, Ali responded, “Well I studied them, I knew what they could do. I didn’t know what this guy could do.”

“You sort of got a sense for who Muhammad Ali was,” said Lieberman after recalling this story.

The last time Lieberman saw Ali was the day he died.

“He obviously was not the same Muhammad Ali,” Lieberman said.

“Muhammad had no regrets about boxing. Muhammad was a devout Muslim and he believed that you did your best and whatever was going to be, was God’s will.

Britta Loking is the Forward’s culture fellow.

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