To celebrate the anniversary, the legendary boxer’s close friend and award-winning photographer, Michael Gaffney, has collated Muhammad Ali: The Champ, an intimate and personal photographic portrait of the former world champion taken between 1977 and 1978. Many of the photographs have never been published before.
Gaffney was an agency photojournalist in New York in the Seventies, and had been pressing for an assignment on Elvis Presley. In 1977, with the death of the rock and roll legend, his project collapsed, and he decided to head to Bear Lake, where Ali was in training for his world heavyweight title fight with Earnie Shavers. Gaffney, in London on Thursday, explained to Telegraph Sport: “I’d always wanted to photograph a true icon. I went off to photograph Ali at his Pennsylvanian training camp. Two weeks turned into a year. He simply told me I wasn’t leaving and his words were ‘I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse’.”
Gaffney was touched by Ali’s genius. “I went everywhere with him. I took thousands of pictures. The pictures went all over the world, in every newspaper and magazine imaginable. But there are many in this exhibition that have never been seen.”
Gaffney has three favourites from the 32 on display at the exhibition at the Proud Gallery in Chelsea. Ali with wife Veronica and daughter Hanna in his motor home, on the way to meet President Jimmy Carter; Ali looking pensively over the ropes at Angelo Dundee’s Fifth St Gym in Miami; and cradling daughter Laila Ali in his wrapped hands, when she was only 17 days old.
“He loved children, perhaps because he had great child-like qualities himself,” Gaffney explained. “But looking over those ropes in the Fifth Street Gym is how I will always remember him. The heart of a champion and the spirit of a saint.”
Angelo Dundee, Ali’s long-time trainer who celebrated his 89th birthday this week, recalled the 1977-78 period on Thursday, taking in the Shavers fight and two against Leon Spinks.
Defeat to the novice pro, and then victory in the re-match. Once Ali had beaten Shavers, Dundee was concerned about the Spinks fight.
“I couldn’t get Ali to be concerned about this guy,” Dundee said. “I tried to tell him that Spinks was tough. ‘How’s he gonna beat me? He’s only had seven pro fights’, Ali kept telling me.
“I know it is 50 years this weekend since he won the gold medal.
“All my memories with Muhammad I hang on to. He was a happy human being, and he transferred that happiness to all those around him. I got an education, I learnt tolerance and I learnt patience with this kid. It don’t cost nothing to be nice.”
Gaffney’s time with Ali has stayed with him. The images will be there forever. “He was a very modest guy. He was humble when you knew him.
“The loud image was part of his act, his persona, but the real Muhammad was very quiet, very studious. The public rarely saw the fact that he was a real deep thinker. When I was with him, I recorded speeches from him on the universal topics of life, love, truth, honesty, friendship.
” He would never look at a note, but just speak on these things for over an hour.”
Gaffney took thousands of photographs during that year. “The set of prints I selected for the exhibition were to epitomise not just Ali the boxer, but Ali the human being,” he said – Telegraph