When Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1984, he and the sport of boxing became the vehicle through which awareness of the illness was spread at a greater rate than ever before. More than 30 years later in Athens, boxing continues to help those suffering from the debilitating condition.
Keppner Boxing is a gym located just two miles down Baxter Street coming from the University of Georgia campus. Owners Keith Keppner and his wife, Lissa, train boxers of all ages and skill levels, ranging from children to professionals. But the most unique class they offer is the one that meets on Tuesday mornings. It's an hour long class, and it's made up entirely of Parkinson's patients.
According to Keppner, the high-intensity cardio exercise that boxing provides is one of the best ways for someone suffering from Parkinson's disease to deal with his or her situation. The commonly known Parkinson's symptoms such as tremors and loss of motor control are caused by a lack of dopamine, and the cardio workouts Keppner's trainees go through increases the absorption of dopamine in their brains.
And while the physiological benefit boxing provides is significant, Keppner said its psychological purpose can be just as important.
"It gives them a good outlet, something exciting and fun to do," he said. "It's definitely been shown to slow the onset of the illness."
If there's anyone who knows what kind of mental impact boxing can have on someone trying to deal with a life-changing illness, it's Keppner.
When he was 17 years old, he was diagnosed with lyme disease, which put him in extreme joint pain and had him bedridden for 15 hours a day. His father was a boxing trainer, so it was natural for him to use it as a method to turn around his health.
"Boxing was a way for me to motivate me and encourage me," Keppner said. "It gave me a system to get my life together."
Keppner's arduous recovery is perhaps what provided him with what trainee Megan Bredahl considers his most important quality as a trainer.
"He's so patient with us," Bredahl said. "He pushes us right up to the limit, but he doesn't push us over."
Having come back from a disease that had him at less than 100 percent, Keppner recognizes the importance of knowing one's own limits in the gym. An overly intense workout can cause more harm than good in an individual dealing with serious health issues.
But based on Keppner's experience since starting his class, the benefits boxing can have for Parkinson's patients greatly outweigh the risks. And while there is no evidence of a cure or method to reverse the effects of the disease, he has seen an exceptional rate of success in the improvement of his afflicted trainees.
"One of the gentleman came in here initially, and he could barely walk," Keppner said. "Now, he's getting punches down, and he's a lot more coordinated. His son said he's walking more easily. It's amazing to see that change."
He also said transformations like this are an almost common occurrence, and he can see the difference boxing makes in people's lives in nearly every class he has.
And with each day of improvement, Keppner's pupils who are battling Parkinson's continue to prove one thing: whether you're Muhammad Ali or someone who boxes for just an hour on Tuesdays, anyone can be a fighter.