The Muhammad Ali Syndrome


Years ago, my major advisor from graduate school, Arnold Lazarus, published an essay about retirement.  In the article, he was comparing the plight of the renowned Albert Ellis, who at the time was in his ‘90’s, to Muhammad Ali.  Although he had his wits, Ellis was almost deaf, and what he had been known for in his early days, his use of four-letter words to shock his clients into changing, had become excessive, and no longer funny nor charming. 

The case of Muhammad Ali, a figure familiar to the world, is a perfect illustration of an individual who refused to retire from the brutal sport of boxing.  Recently, I saw the Ken Burns series that neatly captured the life of Muhammad Ali.  Although Ali was perhaps one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, the highlights from some of his fights showed the many punches he absorbed in winning his matches.  Many of his family and friends wanted him to retire but he wouldn’t listen to them.  If he had a glass jaw and was easy to knock out, he probably would not have wound up with the brain damage that he suffered from in the boxing ring.  After Ali knocked out the young, favorite George Foreman in the 8th round in Zaire, most observers thought Ali should have left the fighting game.  But he refused to quit. 

Ali went on to fight Joe Frazier a third time, in what he called the Thrilla in Manila, and he won by technical knock out after the 14th round.  It was a savage battle in which both fighters threw some heavy-duty punches.  Though, Ali continued to fight after that bout with Frazier, friends noticed that his mental processes had slowed.  Ironically, when the world had come to regard Ali with admiration, he lost the ability to talk aloud. After finally leaving the boxing arena, Ali admitted that Father Time had caught up with him.

In 2004, Lisa and I went on a Red Sox—Oriole Cruise where we had the pleasure of meeting Earl Weaver, the former manager of the Baltimore Orioles.  I asked Mr. Weaver what was the most difficult aspect of managing a major league baseball team.  He told me the hardest part of managing was benching a former star who no longer possessed the skills he had had earlier.  He named Brooks Robinson, the famed Oriole third baseman, as an example.

Because they don’t have to play their position but only have to bat, the designated hitter has allowed older sluggers, that may have retired earlier, to play more years.  An exception to the tendency for athletes to stay in the game too long, David Ortiz (aka Big Papi) could still hit the ball without showing the concomitant signs of aging.  The Red Sox would have signed him in 2017 but he did not want to return even though he had put up good numbers the previous year.  The constant physical conditioning had taken its toll on him as he stated to reporters: “I was done man. I ran out of gas.” He knew the Red Sox wanted him back and would pay him a hefty salary but it was no longer worth it to him.  Good for you, Big Papi!

I plan on working until my 80th birthday.  People ask why I am still working.  First, I am only working two days a week to avoid burn-out.  But also, because I very much like seeing people, and as a psychologist, enjoy helping them problem solve issues related to the difficulties brought on by life circumstances. Moreover, at this point in my career, I have the luxury of selecting clients I can work with and believe I can help.  When I first started out in my profession, I did not have that luxury.

I recently read an article in the New York Times about some of the problems Diane Feinstein, the Democratic Senator from California, is having with recent memory.  She is currently 88 years old.  The newspaper account indicated she is firmly holding on to her position because she is of the belief that she still has the capacity to serve in the fullest.  Though some of her democratic colleagues have defended her, many others question her ability to function in the manner she has in the past.

Without a doubt, quitting can be especially hard for those with prominent careers and the desire to continue to contribute in their fields of interest.  Long ago, my father, who never retired, and did have his “marbles” to the end of his life, told me: “When you leave, you are out of the game and no one cares about you.”  For some of us, leaving the game might be too hard to bear. Others might not know what to do after they retire. I have seen a number of clients that have this problem.  I have assisted some of these clients in finding alternative ways of spending their time such as volunteering or mentoring younger people in sharing whatever set of skills they may offer.  I have a colleague who has maintained regular support and guidance with his grandchildren, an exercise that has provided him with much satisfaction.  Lisa, my wife, has just transferred her enthusiasm and organizational skills in her career to volunteering with an advocacy organization. The key point to recognize is that retirement need not be the end of one’s road but the beginning of another journey where purpose and meaning still can be found. 

By docallegro

Consulting Psychologist
Specialties in: Cognitve-Behavioral Interventions, Conflict Resolution, Mediation, Stress Management, Relationship Expertise, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Fluent in Spanish

6 replies on “The Muhammad Ali Syndrome”

Very interesting blog, as per usual. Thought provoking, even for someone like myself who is earlier in my career.

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Retirement and its accoutrements have become more relevant as the life span of the human race increases.

Thanks for your comment.




Unfortunately, there are a lot of men that have difficulty with retirement. If you can afford to be retired and enjoy it as you put it “vacation” then the more power to you. Many do not view retirement in that light.

Good to hear from you.


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