Muhammad Ali Speech Study Traces the Decline of a Verbal Powerhouse

Signs of the disease that afflicted the bombastic athlete and activist in his later years were evident even while he was in top fighting shape.

As his career ended, boxing great Muhammad Ali knew his light was fading.

“They say I have brain damage, can’t talk no more,” he told the New York Times in 1981. “How do I sound now?”

Such quips rendered Ali’s eventual diagnosis of Parkinson’s syndrome all the more tragic. For many who grew up watching The Greatest float like a butterfly and sting like a bee in the ring, the slurring, mumbling man was a shell of his former hyper-articulate self when he passed away last year at the age of 74.

Now Arizona State University scientists Visar Berisha and Julie Liss and journalist Jonathan Eig believe signs of the disease that afflicted the athlete and political activist in his later years were evident even while he was in top fighting shape.

“While best known for his boxing talent, Muhammad Ali was also one of the greatest talkers of all time,” Berisha, Liss and Eig wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “Sadly, however, Ali’s voice faded — literally and much too soon.”

In a paper presented on Wednesday at the Interspeech 2017 conference in Stockholm, the researchers show how near-imperceptible signs of speech problems increased over time until Ali’s friends and family were sounding alarms about his condition.

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The researchers compared YouTube videos of Muhammad Ali interviews between 1968 and 1981 — three years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s — and statistics on blows the champion received during his 21-year career. A private company, CompuBox, compiled the stats, including how many jabs and power punches landed during bouts.

“Having the punch statistics from each fight gave us some very interesting insights about the potential immediate effects of the blows on speech production, versus the longer-term trends,” said Liss.

The analysis revealed that Ali’s speech rhythms and articulation degrading over time. His speaking rate, for example, slowed by around 26 percent in the years studied. It would worsen after bruising matches. Immediately after a 1977 fight against Earnie Shavers, who landed 266 blows on Ali, the champ’s speech rate declined 16 percent compared to before the fight, the authors said.

“Immediately following a fight, Ali seems to exhibit monoloudness and monopitch,” the authors wrote, “however as time after a fight elapses, Ali becomes more animated in his speech.”

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The author of the forthcoming biography Ali: A Life, Eig contacted Visar and Liss to see if they might help quantify Ali’s condition. They had conducted similar studies on professional football players’ mental states and ex-President Ronald Reagan’s dementia, revealing time and again that mental acuity breaks down slowly but surely.

This latest work shows that coaches, managers and others should potentially record athletes and others who routinely suffer head hits so that doctors might be able to track their speech patterns and detect neurological impairment throughout their lives, the authors wrote.

In earlier studies, Visar and Liss suggested doctors might record patients during annual visits to compile that data. Now, they suggest scientists might develop mobile apps that could overhear folks as they’re talking and automatically determine whether they’re showing signs of decline.

But Liss acknowledged that an app wouldn’t necessarily change people’s behavior.

“People will do what they want to do,” she said.

The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health provided funding for the research.

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