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Muhammad Ali exhibited slowed, slurred speech well before Parkinson's diagnosis, study finds

A study to be released Wednesday of Muhammad Ali's public speaking from 1968-81 found that when he was in his early to mid-30s, he began exhibiting signs of slowed and slurred speech, several years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at age 42.

Led by Arizona State University speech scientists Visar Berisha and Julie Liss, the analysis determined that the rate of syllables per second at which Ali spoke slowed by 26 percent from age 26 to 39. And he was slurring his words by 1978 - three years before his retirement from boxing and six years before his Parkinson's diagnosis.

The study asserts that such changes have been shown to be among the first symptoms for many who develop the condition.

ESPN's Outside the Lines obtained an advance copy of the study that is to be presented at Interspeech 2017, a conference in Stockholm, Sweden. Initiated and co-authored by Jonathan Eig, whose "Ali: A Life" biography is scheduled for release Oct. 3, the ASU study also traced the correlation between the punches Ali absorbed in fights and a speech pattern deterioration in the bouts' aftermaths.

After going 15 rounds with renowned heavy-hitter Earnie Shavers in 1977, during which Shavers struck him with 266 punches, Ali's speech slowed by 16 percent from the pre-fight rate. The data on punches in that bout and all others Ali fought are part of a statistical survey conducted by CompuBox, Inc. at Eig's behest. Although Ali's speech would recover to a degree with time elapsed after a fight, the overall pattern was one of steady decline, the ASU research found.

According to the study's co-authors, since changes in speaking are often early indicators of various neurological conditions, the evaluation of the Ali archive demonstrates a need to begin long-term speech studies for others who are at risk.

"It's very practical and would be another important step allowing a year-by-year look at brain function," Eig told Outside the Lines.

He added that athletes in sports with a high danger of head injuries could make better-informed decisions about their future if aware of changes in their speech patterns. Other than through autopsies, there is no definitive test for diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative condition that is most associated with brain trauma among athletes. CTE has been linked to Parkinson's, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis and ALS.

In May the ASU researchers also released a study comparing the language usage over eight years of 10 National Football League players - seven of whom were quarterbacks -- with those of 18 NFL executives and coaches who had never played professionally. The players, according to the study's findings, were significantly more likely to show signs of deterioration in their vocabulary and sentence complexity.

Liss, a co-author of the NFL and Ali studies and a Ph.D. in speech and hearing science, told Outside the Lines that beyond the potential for early detection, "speech analytics are a useful tool in tracking the effectiveness of efforts at intervention and in the development of drugs and other treatments for neurological diseases."

In the case of Ali, who died last year at age 74, the speech study says its data supports comments made about deterioration in Ali's speech in 1978 by Ali's friend and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, and two years later by two others: his father, Cassius Clay Sr.; and promoter Bob Arum. And in 1981, before his final fight, Ali said to New York Times columnist Red Smith, "They say I have brain damage, can't talk no more. How do I sound now?"

Said Eig: "Ali did damage to himself and he knew it and kept boxing too long, but he didn't have the information we now have about CTE - you don't have to wait until you're middle-aged to stop."