Muhammed Ali’s death is the sort of news that will be covered in the media for weeks, with tributes and reminiscences. He styled himself “The Greatest,” and boxing aficionados say that he certainly was one of the greatest, or maybe even the greatest, just as he had always claimed.

People like me, who never followed boxing and can hardly bear to watch it, still know a lot about Muhammed Ali, because he has been a huge celebrity and unique personality ever since he burst on the scene as Cassius Clay. Brash and talkative, he went through many transformations—his name, his women, his religion, the form his religion took (from racial- and anger-focused Black Muslim to more conventional Islam and a far more mellow outlook)—as well as the terrible transformation wrought comparatively early in his life by Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, and Ali’s diagnosis came at the age of 42—although, looking back, his trainer Angelo Dundee thought he might have shown signs as early as the age of 38. It is commonly assumed that his Parkinson’s was the result of his boxing career and all the blows he took, and although that may be true it is not necessarily the case for Ali:

Dr. Fahn [the neurologist at Columbia-Presbyterian who originally diagnosed him] cannot be certain that Ali’s condition was indeed caused by boxing or if in fact Parkinson’s would have been his fate regardless of what career path he had chosen. An early Ali complaint of numbness in his lips and face, rendering him unaware of when food needed to be wiped away, indicated damage to the brain stem due to boxing, according to Dr. Fahn. But the steady progression of the disorder over the years, he adds, is more indicative of classic Parkinson’s disease. “The proof is only going to come at his autopsy,” Dr. Fahn says, “because the pathology is a little bit different between the two conditions.”

Ali’s last years sound as though they were very difficult and especially ironic for someone once so fleet of mouth and foot: nearly immobile and virtually speechless after three decades of Parkinson’s progression. But in his public appearances, and reportedly in private, he neither complained nor felt sorry for himself. He harnessed his ferocious will in the service of making the best of it and for many years traveled the world with a message of peace.

Watch the following clip of Ali in his prime:

A very big life. RIP.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]