The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
When The Greatest falters, she'll hold his hand
Muhammad Ali

In his prime, Muhammad Ali used to proclaim, with immodest exuberance, that he was 'extra pretty'.

Sitting across from his daughter, Rasheda, I am reminded of his words and decide that here is one Ali for whom the phrase is no exaggeration.

As we talk over tea at one of the swankier casinos in Las Vegas, where she lives, passers-by stop to stare and scratch their heads, their puzzled looks suggesting they can't quite place the willowy beauty with the long silky hair, but assume she must be a celebrity.

But unlike her father in his youth, Rasheda ' who was born in the seventies to the second of Ali's four wives ' is unassuming, soft-spoken and not even a touch pugnacious. She is brainy rather than brash, with a good university education and a mind so full of curiosity that she has made herself something of an expert on Parkinson's disease ' the cruel affliction of her father's old age.

She has just written a book explaining it to children, called I'll Hold Your Hand So You Won't Fall.

'It's been 20 years since my dad showed the first symptoms of the disease. I've had so many questions about it and have wanted to understand what was happening to him.

'It's progressive, so the illness will get worse. And if you're dealing with it as a family, what do you tell children' How do you explain to them why granddad has tremors or trouble speaking'

As a young mother with two small boys ' Biaggio, six, and Nico, four ' she found herself struggling to find good answers to such questions. She started quizzing her father's doctors and began doing research on her own.

'I found out so much and was relieved to learn that the disease isn't necessarily inherited. And when my boys would play with their Poppy and ask why he didn't laugh or why his hands shook, I could finally answer them. That's what led me to create a guide for children so they can understand why their loved ones behave in a certain way.

'One thing I didn't have an answer for was whether boxing had anything to do with my dad's Parkinson's.

'No one really knows why one person gets it and another doesn't, but I now doubt that boxing plays any part in it. I haven't been able to find a single case of another important boxer with the disease. As far as I know, my dad's the only one.'

Even in illness, The Greatest remains a singular figure. Now 62, he lives quietly at a farm on the site of his old training camp in Michigan. Rasheda sees him often, but it's only in recent years that she has come to know him well.

'When I was little, he was still boxing and travelling the world. I didn't see him very much. But now we're close and spend time talking to each other like brother and sister.'

She was brought up in a small town in Illinois, living with her mother's parents and going to the local state schools. Her father was a glamorous figure whom she saw occasionally and adored, but who remained larger than life and mostly out of reach. He was 'Daddy on TV', she says with a laugh.

In a voice that has the characteristic Ali lilt, she adds: 'I knew he was cool. I just wasn't sure why.'

Rasheda: Daddy’s girl

It's just as well she was out of the picture for so many of the last stormy years of her father's career.

He began losing fights and his 10-year marriage to her mother ' Belinda Boyd ' suffered a nasty break-up. Back in Illinois, Rasheda and her brothers and sisters were blissfully unaware of the chaos.

'I grew up in a normal way ' it was very middle class ' and most people treated me like an ordinary person.

'It was only later, when I was away at college, that I found being my dad's daughter could be a problem with some people ' especially boys, who would treat me differently as soon as they found out who I was.'

To avoid the problem, she began making a point of not revealing who her father was. The man who is now her husband ' Las Vegas chef Bob Walsh ' knew her for a year before he discovered, by accident, that she was Muhammad Ali's daughter.

Email This Page