It is now understood that the disease, which attacks the nervous system, was the result of Ali taking too many blows to the head, particularly in the final years of his career.
Yet today growing numbers are taking up a non-contact form of the sport in order to combat the pain and muscle stiffness that the condition causes.
Chantell Calderbank, from Manchester, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in January this year, took up boxing a few months ago but has started seeing the benefits. “I’ve noticed massive improvements,” explains the 43-year-old mum of two.
“It has improved my balance and increased mobility in my shoulder. I can lift it up to my ear now whereas before I couldn’t even lift my arm up my back.”
Parkinson’s is a degenerative neurological condition, for which there is, as yet, no cure, affecting about 145,000 people in the UK – 1,750 of whom are under the age of 50.
It affects everyone differently but the charity Parkinson’s UK estimate that there are about 40 symptoms.
The most widely known is the tremor but they can also range from physical symptoms such as pain and muscle stiffness to depression, anxiety, hallucinations, memory problems and dementia.
Chantell, who has two sons aged 12 and 18, first noticed a tremor in her finger which spread to her thumb in September 2016. “It was odd but I wasn’t overly concerned to begin with,” she recalls.
Chantell Calderbank has found boxing helps with her Parkinson’s symptoms
Within a few months, though, the tremor had spread to her whole hand. Her right shoulder had become stiff, making everyday tasks such as brushing her teeth difficult.
“I was effectively brushing my teeth by moving my head from side to side rather than my arm,” she explains. Her GP told her it was most likely an “essential tremor”, a nerve disorder, which could just come and go.
Yet by the summer of 2017 the tremor was making her handwriting impossible to decipher, which was affecting her work as a PA. When she walked, she felt her leg was dragging behind her, struggled to climb stairs and was beset by vivid dreams.
Chantell was referred to a neurologist at Salford Royal Hospital and after numerous tests, was given the devastating news that she had Parkinson’s disease.
I kept thinking, ‘I can’t have Parkinson’s – I’m only 42
“I was so shocked,” she says. “I watched his mouth talking but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Everything was in slow motion. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t have Parkinson’s – I’m only 42. Why did this happen to me?’”
In the days that followed, she began to research the condition online and discovered that bouts of intense exercise can reduce or delay Parkinson’s symptoms by building muscle strength, improving balance and hand-eye co-ordination.
It is also known to relieve stress, improve mental health and boost confidence. Chantell also found that a non-contact form of boxing was particularly popular with Parkinson’s patients in America although she struggled to find a similar class in the UK.
“I rang around my local gyms but couldn’t find anywhere that worked with people with Parkinson’s,” she says.
“Chantell is an amazing example of what can be achieved through exercise.”
Eventually she found a gym in nearby Bolton, where trainers had been working with a client with Parkinson’s for a number of years and she decided to give it a try.
“It took all my courage to enter the doors of the gym for the first time,” she says. “I was so anxious and nervous, my tremor was on full voltage but the staff and qualified coaches were so welcoming and any fears I had soon disappeared.”
Since March she has trained three times a week under the instruction of head coach and ex-professional boxer Alex Matvienko, working with pads and punching to improve her agility and co-ordination.
“I am fighting to save my movement and slow down the progression of the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s,” she says. “Boxing is better for me than just going to the local gym.
“They push me harder than I would push myself while showing me the correct movement and posture to help build my strength and increase my mobility.”
Daiga Heisters, of the UK Parkinson’s Excellence Network, says: “Many people with Parkinson’s experience chronic pain, which can in part be caused by muscle stiffness and involuntary muscle contractions caused by the condition.
“Evidence suggests that increasing exercise to 2.5 hours a week can slow the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms and Chantell is an amazing example of what can be achieved through exercise.
“Boxing training has helped her increase her mobility and reduce stiffness and pain.” The charity is funding a research study into the relationship between Parkinson’s and pain, in the hope that better treatments can be found for those living with chronic pain.
Daiga says: “Pain and Parkinson’s is complex and we don’t fully understand the causes or how best to treat it “Some studies suggest that due to changes in the brain, people with Parkinson’s actually feel pain differently.”
This month Parkinson’s UK is raising awareness of chronic pain as a symptom of the condition and sharing advice and tips on how to manage it. Visit parkinsons.org.uk or call its free confidential helpline on 0808 800 0303.