It was billed as “The Last Hurrah.” For the first time in two years, Muhammad Ali would step back into the ring to reclaim the title held by an undeserving foe in his absence from the sport. But on that October night in 1980, the Greatest finally fell, lasting just 10 of 15 rounds, absorbing punch after punch by Larry Holmes while barely landing 10 of his own. In round nine, a devastating right uppercut had Ali draped against the ropes, and Holmes hit him with a right hook to the kidney that caused the former champion to bellow in agony. Boxing writer Thomas Hauser would later recall it as, “The night when Ali screamed.“
Just three months before, Ali had undergone a two-part physical at the Mayo Clinic amid concerns by the Nevada Athletic Commission for his overall health. In his report, Dr. John Mitchell, tasked with checking Ali’s kidneys, concluded the boxer appeared to be in “excellent general medical health.” The neurological exam was more troubling: Dr. Frank Howard found Ali was having difficulty speaking, hopping on one leg, and touching his finger to his nose. Yet he found no specific reason to prohibit Ali from fighting, and he was granted a boxing license, setting the stage for a brutal fight that never should have happened in the first place. Ali had no reflexes that night, reduced to a human punching bag by Holmes.
It was that fight that Ali would later point to as a possible source of his Parkinson’s, the disease he publicly battled for the last three decades of his life. But in the years since his 1984 diagnosis, there are still more questions than answers surrounding boxing, head injuries, and denegenerative brain disease.
Today, much of national conversation of head trauma in sports concerns not Parkinson’s, but the disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, among football players. CTE is also known to be prevalent in sports like hockey, soccer, and rugby, yet the earliest association of the disease was with boxing. In 1928, pathologist Dr. Harrison Martland described “nearly 50 percent of fighters … if they keep at the game long enough” as exhibiting “punch-drunk” symptoms – boxing slang for the various cognitive, behavior, and motor abnormalities observed in many fighters. Those symptoms would come to describe a disease known as dementia pugilistica, a form of CTE.
There’s been much speculation as to the role boxing played in Ali’s development of the disease, about which little was known at the time of diagnosis. The growing body of scientific literature linking CTE to concussions and repetitive head injuries, as well as an increasing association between CTE and Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS, have caused many to wonder if Ali, too, suffered from the disease most commonly associated with NFL players. But with no definitive test for Parkinson’s or CTE among the living – with both diseases only being diagnosable using posthumous tissue samples – it will be impossible to truly answer that question without Ali’s family donating his brain for research.