Unseen Ali: An exhibit of the greatest

Mesmerising photographs of Muhammad Ali show the man up close, both in and out of the ring.

Chris Anderson April 24, 2016

Most boxers never got close to Muhammad Ali – well, apart from George Foreman in the famous Rumble in the Jungle.

However, one man who did sneak past Ali’s guard repeatedly was photojournalist Michael Gaffney. Muhammad Ali asked Gaffney to be his personal photographer from 1977 to 1978, a fascinating and rarely seen period of his career that saw his powers begin to fade.

Gaffney’s stunning photographs show the bold and brash side of Ali, now 74, as well as the quieter private man, and are currently on display at a new exhibition in London. He talked us through his portfolio of the champ.

Main image
Madison Square Garden, New York, 1977
“This is the Champ relaxing in his locker room before the Shavers fight. He was calm, cool and confident. He knew he was ready.”

Detroit, Michigan, 1977
“Muhammad Ali lived for the spontaneous moments of meeting people and having fun at every opportunity, everywhere he went. He loved to stop the limo and mix it up with whoever was around. People would be shocked to see him at first, but then relaxed and enjoyed it with him.” 

Muhammad Ali is a boxing icon that transcended the sport he so masterfully dominated for more than two decades. In the ring, he could move like no other fighter. On paper, his stance and technique were all wrong, keeping his arms down and sticking his chin out to taunt his opponents. But he was so quick on his feet and with his punches, it just didn’t matter.

The thrill of watching him in the ring was matched only by what he did away from it. His boastful claims – “I’m too pretty! I’m too fast! I am the greatest!” – and his knockout predictions made him an exciting media personality, and he used his fame as a force for social and cultural change – promoting racial equality and speaking out against the Vietnam War. 

Madison Square Garden, New York, 1977
“Most of the time, there were crowds of people surrounding the world’s most famous man. This was one of those rare times I was alone with him as he worked on his hand and foot speed hours before the Earnie Shavers fight. Ali floated effortlessly in circles, gracefully dancing while grunting with the power of each snapping punch. He always made it look so easy.” 

The latter cost him his heavyweight title in 1967 and a suspension from the sport, leading him to make a glorious comeback in the 1970s. He remains the only heavyweight boxer to have won the title three times, in 1964, 1974 and 1978, with a legacy of 56 wins out of 61 fights, and 37 by knockout. 

His last bout came in 1981 – the so-called Drama in the Bahamas against Trevor Berbick; slightly less memorable than the iconic Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman or the Thrilla in Manilla fighting Joe Frazier.

The Ali in the decades since has embarked on a new battle, this time against Parkinson’s disease. But he has handled his affliction with as much dignity and resolve as any previous challenge which, to some, makes him even more iconic. 

This year has seen a petition launched by British boxer David Haye, currently with 23,000 signatures, asking the Queen to honour Muhammad Ali with a knighthood. 

Miami Beach, Florida, 1978
“While in Miami Beach, Veronica [Ali’s third wife] and Muhammad had their second daughter, Laila. I asked to take pictures of her when she was just two-and-a-half weeks old. He agreed and we went to their apartment where he lay on the floor and held his child in his hands for this rare, tender moment of father and daughter.”

It is hard not to remain fascinated by him, as a new exhibition in London by photojournalist Michael Gaffney shows. Working as Ali’s personal photographer from 1977 to 1978, Gaffney documented training sessions, family moments and three fantastic fights – a tough win against Earnie Shavers, the loss of his title to Leon Spinks, and then a rematch with Spinks in which he regained the World Heavyweight Championship for an unprecedented third time.

It was a fascinating period, starting with Ali at his peak, still with the title he had won from Foreman in 1974, having disposed of any serious challengers, including closest rival Joe Frazier. But it was also a dangerous time, during which Ali started to believe the hype. He believed he was better than everybody, he relaxed his training and took time out to play himself in a movie about his life, The Greatest in 1977. 

Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, 1978
“The moment Ali defeated Spinks and won the World Heavyweight Championship for a third time. The feat still stands today, having never been accomplished before or since. Ali’s bodyguard, Pat Patterson, shot his hand high up into the historic night as Ali was triumphantly raised onto the shoulders of his crew. But there was also a sadness in his eyes, as if he knew his career was coming to an end.” 

He underestimated Spinks, who had only eight fights to his name. Perhaps most tragically, Ali’s doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, quit the boxer’s camp, as he saw the early signs of Parkinson's and requested that the champion retire.

But as Gaffney shows off his images, it becomes evident that the impression left on the photographer is nothing less than perfect. “This is a rare insider’s look at one of the most extraordinary people of our lifetime,” he says. “It was my job to document this year in the life of Muhammad Ali and show future generations how he made the world a better place.” 

Madison Square Garden, New York, 1977
“The press loved covering Ali’s wildly entertaining press conferences. Hours before the Earnie Shavers fight, a simple weigh-in – rarely, if ever, covered by the press before Ali arrived on the boxing scene – became an international news event.” 

CREDIT FOR ALL IMAGES: © Michael Gaffney

The Champ: My Year with Muhammad Ali by Michael Gaffney exhibition is at the Proud Camden gallery in London, until May 15. proud.co.uk