Happy birthday to 'The Greatest'

Happy 70th birthday to "The Greatest of All Time," Muhammad Ali.


Let's be honest: A lot of us didn't think he'd make this milestone.

To see the once-vibrant vessel of joyful animation increasingly impacted by Parkinson's disease, which he was diagnosed with in 1984, one had to wonder how much longer the world would get to enjoy the sight of a living, breathing Ali.

His daughter Rasheda, though, didn't fall prey to worry. One of four children born to Ali's second wife, Belinda, Rasheda chatted with NYFightBlog on Tuesday morning. The Las Vegas resident was amped up, pumped to see the other Ali kids and to see all the grandchildren gathered together tonight in California. Nine kids and 11 grandkids will gather around Muhammad Ali and bask in his warmth this evening.

Rasheda talked about her father's stamp on this world, what makes him legitimately the greatest of all time, what it was like to share such a figure with the world and how his condition hasn't dampened his ability to inspire.

"He contracted Parkinson's in the early '80s," said Rasheda, who has authored a book about the condition, "I'll Hold Your Hand So You Won't Fall: A Child's Guide to Parkinson's Disease." "To be 70, in the late stages and moving around, I'm incredibly impressed with his attitude. He never feels sorry for himself. He always taught us that nothing bothers him. He's never complained, never said, 'Why me?' That's made us stronger, how he reacts. He's very healthy, takes all his medications, his wife (Yolanda) is a great caregiver. His being here has a lot to do with family and his great mental attitude."

Rasheda said that no one is sure why her dad has Parkinson's, a neurodegenerative condition suffered by 6.5 million people the world over, including 1.5 million in North America. The boxing could have triggered a predisposition, she said. But she, like all of us, hope that progress is made in research so the condition can be cured.

"I hope in my dad's lifetime he'll be cured of the condition," she said. "I have to be positive. That gives me hope. I can't let go of hope."

Growing up in New Jersey, Rasheda didn't see as much of Ali as she would have liked. Ali and mom Belinda officially divorced in 1976, so she saw him a lot when school was out. But Rasheda said that she got it pretty early on how beloved her dad was.

"It was a lot harder to share him when I was younger," she said. "I wanted to be around him, wanted to be a big part of his life. But I knew at an early age I had to share him with the world. There were frustrations, but I knew he was giving so much to so many millions of others."

That Ali is no saint has been well documented. Our media's preference for burrowing into every nook and cranny of public figures' private lives has contributed to a dearth of role models, as only those who can control message with psychotic intensity can maintain an aura of impossible goodness. (I personally write off the private failings of public figures, such as Ali's tendency toward flagrant womanizing in the '70s, especially; unless of course the private failings are those of moralizers and scolds, especially politicians or religious leaders, and then I denounce them for rampant hypocrisy.) But Rasheda is able to accept all facets of her father's personality.

"He was and is a loveable man!" she said. "The ladies love him, everyone loves him. He's very charming."

Yes, Ali has been a man of contradictions. He championed some of the more divisive racial theories of the Nation of Islam before moving towards more moderate strains of Islam. But I see him as one of the dwindling remaining figures who stood tall on principles of love and faith and non-violence, to the extent they were willing to perish for those principles. The world is so sorely lacking in such giants, like Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali, to name two. I asked Rasheda if she thought I was overstating the import of Ali, lumping him in with MLK.

"He's one of the last," she agreed. "My dad is still here, and I'm grateful he's able to give more. My dad taught us kids, and the world, to believe in ourselves. He showed us values -- and we will take that with us -- like respect, conviction of faith, love of charity. He taught us through example. He's shown us love, and if the world had more of that, it would be a better place."

Amen to that.

Happy birthday, champ.