*He was a braggadocio who stood up to ridicule, imprisonment, Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston, and conquered them all. He talked a loud game and backed every word with a demeanor that exuded an overboard self-confidence, unusual to find in the black man during the early days of the Civil Rights movement.
Fortunately, as history has proved, by far, he was adored, even borderline worshipped as a deity sent from heaven far more than hated. That was the persona of one Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest heavyweight boxer in sports history. One thing can’t be argued: he was THE most charismatic athlete in all of history. Mention his name and eyes that remember him in his prime water over in misty memory. One recalls his struggles with the U.S. government over his refusal to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. It resulted in his being stripped of his heavyweight crown for three years. They recall his epic battles with Smokin’ Joe Frazier, his humbling of an over-rated Liston, his verbal sparring with sports broadcaster Howard Cosell and much, much more.
Now, at age 70 and shelved by years of beatings that left him in nearly uncontrollable Parkinson’s disease-like shakes, Muhammad Ali can still be viewed in his prime. Thanks to a stunning photographic exhibit at the Artworks Gallery in Pasadena, California, that chronicled a week of photography by Michael Brennan, Ali stands tall in sweaty bronze while training in 1977 for yet another epic ring encounter, this time with a palooka of a fighter named Ernie Shavers. Of course, Ali won… Brennan had nearly unfettered access to Ali, and captured a series of stunningly impressive photos that are literal portraits in their black & white glory. Each photograph, 20 in total and extraordinarily high museum quality, has been enlarged to show the sweat, pain and, most of all, the intense focus that Ali brought to each battle. The photographs also capture Ali in full training: head gear, taped hands, stoic and determined. One photograph in particular shows Ali after an intense work-out staring off into space, or more likely, his kingdom. He stands proud, knowing that the effort he put into his training will result in victory. Point is, this iconic image stands head and shoulders with any oils to be found in conventional galleries.
Chris Forney, owner of Artworks, has also included many of the boxers that fought Ali: Chuck Wepner, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, James “Buster” Mathis, Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks and others, all photographed by Brennan. And there is a poignant shot of former heavyweight Floyd Patterson’s hands, beaten, gnarled, weathered, with cracked nails that reflected the sheer brutality of his chosen sport. But the most ironic – and last – photo one sees is of Frazier, hanging just to the left of the door. One does not see it entering the gallery, but the photo stands as a reminder of Ali’s greatest foe and as a tribute to his recent death and the glory that painted a life portrait that should last for many generations of two men who left everything in the ring. We are all the better for it.
Artworks Gallery is at 59 West Del Mar Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91105. The exhibit runs through February 15