Wednesday, June 08, 2016


This is one of the great books on Ali, a chunky 300pp delight created by George Lois, a famous American art director, designer, and author, and published by Taschen in 2006. Lois is best known for over 92 covers he designed for Esquire magazine from 1962 to  1972.. One of the most famous of all was Ali as St Sebastian, each arrow named for one of his enemies. Each double page is a striking image alongside an Ali quote or poem. Its imaginative and a testament also to the hit-it-off style and friendship between the two men. In the intro Lois writes:  

'Muhammad Ali was the heavyweight of everything: hype, PR, media, street theatre, black humour, moneymaking, politics, rap, the greats boxing champion ever, and certainly the superstar to end all superstars, the epitome of superstardom - The Greatest. A pugilistic jester whose verbal jabs made more headlines than his punches in the ring, his doggerel was an upscale version of street trash talk, the first time whites had ever heard such versifying - becoming the first rapper, the precursor to Tupac and Jay-Z. His first-person rhymes and rhythms extolling his hubris were hilarious hip-hop, decades before Run-D.M.C., Rakim and LL Cool J. His style, his desecrating mouth, his beautiful irrationality, his principled, even prophetic stand against the Vietnam War, all added to his credentials as a true-born slayer of authority. and the most beloved man of our times.'

Front cover of the Sunday Times magazine/September 9th 1974, in the lead-up to the 'Rumble In The Jungle'
[The Generalist Archive]

Two other of my favourite Ali Books: 'Muhammad Ali: The Glory Years' by Felix Dennis and Don Atyeo [Ebury Press.2002]. Packed with great black and whites and original interviews, documenting every Ali fight from 1960-1981.

'The Tao of Ali' is a much more personal book on Ali the man, Long time since I read it but it has stuck with me. Here's a review from Publisher's Weekly:

To Miller, a contributing editor to Sport magazine, it seems as if Muhammad Ali has always been a part of his life--even as far back as January 1964, when the author ""had just turned twelve and was the shortest and skinniest and sickliest kid in town."" It was then that Miller first saw Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, on TV, in connection with his fight against Sonny Liston. Ali was, as always, supremely confident: ""I'm young and handsome and fast and pretty and can't possibly be beat,"" Miller heard the boxer say. For Miller, ""the voice was cooking with the cosmic.""
In this engaging blend of autobiography and portrait, Miller goes on to tell of meeting Ali in person, in 1975, at the boxer's training camp in Pennsylvania, where the writer sparred with the champ and took a punch that dazed him. Although Miller has met other boxing legends, Ali, he says, is in a class by himself--not only for his consummate skill and self-assurance but for other qualities as well, such as the quiet, sure, unmistakable way he befriends and enlivens others, seemingly relieving them at least in part of their troubles and worries. The author leaves no doubt that his admiration for and friendship with Ali has had a benevolent--perhaps salvational--effect on his own life. While the exact nature of Ali's effect on Miller remains unclear, the picture of Ali presented here offers many clues--the man Miller portrays so vividly is, though physically slowed by Parkinson's syndrome, full of charm, wit and religious fervor (""I've been everywhere in the world, seen everything, had everything a man can have. Don't none of it mean nothin'.... The only thing that matters is submitting to the will of God""). 

My generation were lucky enough to see the 'Rumble In The Jungle' live. If my memory serves me well, we were clustered round a small tv that was sitting on a large round table in our office in Ladbroke Grove. 'When Were Kings' is the fight and much more. Ali and Foreman went out to Mobutu's Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for the fight which was one of Don King's first major boxing promotions. There was also going to be a concert featuring top flight musicians. In addition the media were there in force including such great writers as Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson. When Foreman hurt himself in training, the whole circus has to be postponed. The fight, which was meant to happen on Sept 25th was pushed back to October 30th.
The three-night-long music festival to hype the fight took place as scheduled (September 22–24) and is documented in the 2008 film'Soul Power'. It includes performances by James Brown, Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, Bill Withers, The Crusaders, and Manu Dibango. 

This Oscar winning film, directed by Leon Gast captures the whole story in brilliant style. I first went to see it on a big screen with my son Louis in a small hot cinema in London's West End one summer afternoon. My son  didn't know what the outcome of the fight was. Even though I knew, it was a amazing experience to see it again. 

William Klein is one cool cat - considered one of the great street photographers, former painter under Leger, also film-maker. His work in inspiring and exciting and this film which I discovered some years ago is stone cold brilliant. 

Imagine if Jean Luc Godard had made a boxing movie and you're getting close to this gem. Klein has a wonderful eye and real and natural untrained genius for creating images. The film goes from 1964 to 1974 and covers the two Sonny Liston fights and the Rumble in the Jungle. It's mainly in black and white but then effectively switches to colour when we reach Zaire.

We don't see the fights. The film opens with a swift montage from the first Liston/Ali encounter [which Klein made an earlier film about: Cassius, le grand (1964–65)] 
'Muhammad Ali: The Greatest' was realeased in 1969.

What we do see is everything surrounding the fights and the dramatic events in between. Klein takes his camera right up in there, close as you can get to people's faces and into the situation. Its visceral and totally real. This must be one of the greatest films to capture not only Ali - formidable, outspoken, dangerous, magnificent - but the real black experience in the South, which perhaps only a Jewish Frenchman born in New York could get. 

We meet the Louisville Syndicate, the white men funding Cassius Clay's early career and their casual racism. We go to Ali's training camp and The Beatles turn up. We see the frightening bulk of Sonny Liston and are taken inside sweaty dressing rooms where the fighters are being prepared for action.  

Klein captures the period between fights when Ali has an abdominal hernia and is out of action for six months. Its during this time that  joins the Black Muslims and changes his name to Muhammad Ali. At that time, Ali believed that the 22 million blacks in America should have their own homeland. Amazingly we see Malcolm X talking straight to Klein's camera and then see the aftermath of Malcolm X's assassination and the period when Ali is receiving death threats. The Africa we see is pulsating and, post the fight, is jumping with vivacious glee and crowds gleefully shouting the name of Ali. The film has cool soundtracks from modern jazz to afrobeat. This is The Greatest about The Greatest.

This fabulous larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Ali was produced by Marcus Cornish
and commissioned by the late Felix Dennis for his Garden of Heroes & Villains.
Photo: John May

No comments: