To begin, let us take moment to say “Rest In Peace” to the greatest of all time. Muhammad Ali is responsible for some of the most apocryphal moments in the ring. His incomparable work ethic, revolutionary techniques and fearlessness towards standing up for his beliefs all contribute to the legend that he will forever be remembered as. They say no one worked as hard as he did, and there is no doubt that he pushed limits and forged a new way for athletes today.
Ali brought extraordinary speed and grace to his sport, while his charm and wit changed what the public expected of a boxer. His accomplishments in the ring are the stuff of myth— two fights with Sonny Liston, where he proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and proved he was; three epic wars with Joe Frazier; the stunning victory over George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle; and the dethroning of Leon Spinks that led to Ali becoming the heavyweight champion for an unprecedented third time.
There has always been far more to Ali than what took place in the boxing ring. He was fearless in his stance on civil rights, fighting for people suffering injustices in the United States and the rest of the world— which made him an iconic figure worthy to be captured in the realm of Fine Art. Over the years Ali has been portrayed in various media and forms, and there are a few images that stand out most memorably.
The most iconic photo that has been reproduced, framed and hung on the walls of many a sports collector would be the shot of Ali hovering over Sunny Liston in 1965; the first round knock out. One of the many highlights of Ali’s career turned into a symbolic portrait of power. Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer shot the image sitting ringside at the most anticipated fight of the decade. Powerful overhead lights and thick clouds of cigar smoke had turned the ring into the perfect studio, and Leifer took full advantage. His perfectly composed image captures Ali radiating the strength and poetic brashness that made him the nation’s most beloved and reviled athlete, at a moment when sports, politics and popular culture were being squarely battered together in the tumult of the ’60s.
Andy Warhol photographed Muhammad Ali in 1977 as part of his Athletes series. The project was initiated by the art collector and sports enthusiast, Richard Weisman, and featured the likes of other legendary athletes, such as the footballer Pelé and famous golfer Jack Nicklaus. At first Warhol was unfamiliar with the sports stars, but characteristic of his obsession with fame, he recalled, “I really got to love the athletes because they are the really big stars.” Ali was not an easy subject but Warhol managed to capture a powerful shot with the boxer’s fists poised, ready to punch. Ali took this iconic stance from a young age, and it continued to be the signature look of his career.
Another notable depiction of Ali is the glamourised photo of his youth by the artist Russell Young. In the context of Young’s series, the large screen prints covered in diamond dust comment on the tragedy of celebrity. The shiny prime of a celebrity’s career is in their youth, and it is sometimes abruptly taken from them. However morbid the theme might seem, the vibrancy of Ali radiates proudly, determination etched into his face. It is that look that drove him to become one of the greatest athletes of all time.
There have been plenty of artworks made in admiration of Ali, and there will always be an avid interest surging around him to merit the creation of such pieces. It is rare for an athlete to surpass the realm of sports and become a subject of Fine Art, but for Ali— for the man who defied logic and adversity— it’s clear that he deserved to be embraced by and solidified into all areas of culture.
Let us always remember The Man, The Legend, and The Influence: Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016)