Weigh-In from London: Ali’s Life in Pictures

By Michael Klimes on September 5, 2012
Weigh-In from London: Ali’s Life in Pictures
Many women blushed in Muhammad Ali’s presence...and he knew it. (Michael Gaffney)

If journalists, writers and political figures tapped into Ali’s enormous energy, it was only natural that photographers and artists would do the same…

Muhammad Ali was a consummate bon-vivant. His coruscating wit, infectious charm and film star looks made him a natural socialite. Like the recently deceased author Gore Vidal, there was not a prominent person Ali did not meet and get to know due to his outstanding career.

It became normal for Ali to be the center of attention at any party where his verbal pyrotechnics captivated the ear and his lithe yet muscular physique caught the attention of the eye. Many women blushed in Ali’s presence and he knew it. 

Furthermore, Ali’s agile movement which wrong-footed opponents, elegant combinations and feline reflexes made him one of the great fighting specimens of the 1960s. 

Then, the twin political firestorms he was drawn into and burned by throughout the decade: the Vietnam War and fractious race and culture battles made him, at least for a while in the opinions of certain Americans, both insolently unpatriotic and a parasitic traitor.

These two issues pushed Ali into the orbit of the formidable yet controversial activist Malcolm X. His relationship with Malcolm X, which was intensely personal yet political, and his recruitment into the black-nationalist movement, the Nation of Islam, only enhanced his infamy. 

It was the startling combination of these elements which propelled Ali, partially by choice and circumstance, to fuse sports and politics in a way that no one else will ever repeat. The schizophrenic context of the 1960s was and remains compelling to research.

On top of this, Ali’s stark contradictions, confused ideals, personal shortcomings and dramatic boxing career provide the observer with a sociological window into the complex and far-ranging power struggles which engulfed numerous societies in the 1960s and 1970s.

With such a dramatic narrative, it is not surprising that Ali was a source of inspiration for many artists ranging from novelists to photographers. A.J. Liebling, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, David Remnick, Hunter S. Thompson and other writers all gave Ali their undivided attention at some point since they all realized that Ali was not just another boxer and sports personality.

If journalists, writers and political figures tapped into Ali’s enormous energy, it was only natural that photographers and artists would do the same.

With the Olympics recently finished in London and the Paralympics going on, it is only logical that an original and spellbinding exhibition called “In the Rings with Ali” has been set up by Christina Jansen, a Dutch born, London-based photographer who met Ali in 1986 on an assignment.

It took three years to develop the project which she said “was a lot of hard work” to celebrate Ali’s seventieth birthday.

It features work from distinguished photographers and artists on display at Forman’s Smokehouse Gallery, 100 meters from the main Olympic stadium.

Photographers Ken Regan, Michael Gaffney, Sonia Katchian, Neil Leifer, Carl Fischer, Christina Jansen, Terry O’Neill, George Kalinsky, Chris Smith, Graham Wood and Neil Kenlock all have their work shown along with artists Chris Gollon, Roberto Rabanne and Duncan MacAskill.

“My main reason [for doing the exhibition] was that it was inspired by Ali’s humanitarian work,” said Ms Jansen. “His positive outlook and his wonderful quote about a person that is not willing to take risks in life will get nowhere and it is all about having a go. I think that is a great message considering how tough things are out there now at the moment. It is one of the best things all in all.”

A further purpose of exhibition, apart from conveying Ali’s positivity and life, is to raise money for Amnesty International, Parkinson’s Research, and a local boxing club in East London through a percentage of the picture sales.

Mark Dexter, a sports journalist of 30 years and public relations consultant, helped organize the event. He talked about the uniqueness of the exhibition: “He just changed the perception of boxers. How many other exhibitions are there of other boxers? I can’t think of any others off the top of my head. I cannot think of another boxer who has had exhibitions solely devoted to him before.”

An atmospheric and colorful Private View opening ceremony was held on the July 19 which had Rahman Ali, Muhammad’s brother, and his wife as honored guests. They traveled from the United States and were presented with an award by Roberto Rabanne, a noted artist. Rahman gave an emotional speech and met numerous guests who came to speak with him and collect his autograph.

I managed to catch Mr. Ali. He wore an unmistakable hat and flashed a memorable smile he shares with his brother. He called the event “outstanding” and said of his brother’s definitive bouts and legacy, “The most important fight was with Smokin’ Joe Frazier, the Thriller in Manila, and George Foreman in Africa where he knocked him out. Those are two of the most important fights. My brother’s legacy is that he was a loving man who believed in God, he lived up to the commandments of God the best he could. He has been a good man close to God.”

Mr. Rabanne, who presented Rahman Ali with an award, offered insight into what it was like to grow up in the US in the sixties in such a tense racial environment with Ali working hard to upset the status quo.

He started to follow Ali in the 1960s and met him at Deer Lake in 1975. “We thought that he was a cultural hero,” said Rabanne. “Ali was an outspoken man and he saw things for what they really were and had no fear of speaking it. He really had a humanitarian streak about him throughout his life. In the context of the time, it was revolutionary in terms of being conscious-raising. We were aware of the malaise that existed which was codified.”

“You know Ali was saying the system is wrong. There is a deep injustice and morally corrupt situation. And we are going to create our own identity and recreate ourselves as we think we really are. It is a process of slow awakening. You start to realize this and put one and one together. You are who you are no matter what they tell you who you are. For us teenagers, going back to the early 1960s, it was something to look up to.”

NOTE: The exhibition runs until the 30 September.

Michael Klimes is a journalist and writer based in the United Kingdom. He works for Japan’s leading news agency, JIJI Press, at the London bureau. He writes about a variety of topics. You can visit his website at: www.michaelklimes.com to see his interests. His twitter page is here: http://twitter.com/#!/misaklimes.

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