To be a world champion boxer, you must be a warrior in and out of the ring, a master of both the sport and the psychology that allows one man to dominate another. Muhammad Ali, the G.O.A.T. (“Greatest of All Time”), learned this lesson at the start of his career, when he converted to Islam and faced the rage of the mainstream press during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
But it didn’t stop there. On April 28, 1967, Ali refused to be inducted into the Armed Services to fight into the Vietnam War on religious grounds. The following day, the U.S. government stripped him of the World Heavyweight title and had his boxing license suspended. Sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, so he did what any fighter would do — he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was overturned in an unanimous decision in 1970. Ali immediately set forth to restore his reputation and his career, training harder than ever before and taking on all contenders in the ring.
As it so happened, Ali unknowingly crossed paths with Michael Brennan that same year while the British photographer sat in an airport outside Glasglow, Scotland on a quiet Saturday afternoon. “Suddenly the departure lounge doors opened and five or six big Black guys lead by Ali came running through the airport, chanting,” Brennan says. “They went out [on to the tarmac] and up the stairs of the airplane. The door closed and the airplane took off.”
A member of Ali’s camp was seated near Brennan and they began to chat. He gave the photographer his card and invited him to call whenever he was in the states. Three years later Brennan did just that when he moved to New York City. “In the early days, I wasn’t getting much work and I knew that if I took the bus to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, walked to Ali’s camp, and knocked on the door, he would come out. I would take a picture and that was the rent paid for the next month,” he remembers.
“I did that two or three times and he never turned me away. Ali was extremely welcoming and thrived off the company of spectators. I’ve never known anybody like him.” He said, ‘You ever tried knocking on the doors of Frank Sinatra’s house or Barbra Streisand’s doors?’ I said, ‘No, don’t intend to either.’”
Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee
Ali, who playfully referred to Brennan as “The Limey,” was a master of promotions and understood the press had one real job: to get people to buy tickets to the fight. “He was never vindictive and was welcoming to all the writers, even guys who had written bad pieces about him. He just got on well with everybody,” Brennan says.
His opponents, however, became open targets for Ali’s notorious ability to mock and degrade. His devastating blows, designed to heighten the tension and build anticipation for the bout, were fighting words in every sense imaginable. Ali called Sonny Liston “the big ugly bear,” Joe Frazier a “gorilla,” Floyd Patterson an “Uncle Tom,” and inspired the people of Zaire to chant “Ali, bomaye” (“Ali, kill him”) before the legendary 1974 Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman.
After Foreman retired in 1977, he became an ordained Christian minister. Soon thereafter, Brennan photographed Foreman in his Houston, Texas, home, graciously declining Big George’s offer to baptize him. On the plane ride back, Brennan got to thinking about the twists of fate that transformed the Olympic gold medalist into a Man of God.
“If that’s what George is doing, what are the other opponents up to?” Brennan wondered to himself. The following day, the photographer set off to find out. He began tracking down the men who faced Ali in the ring for what would later be published as a 14-page feature in a 1980 issue of Sports Illustrated. But the story didn’t end there; Ali’s redemption arc came in 1996 when he lit the Olympic flame at the Atlanta games, the onset of Parkinson’s disease visible for the very first time. Suddenly the man the American press had vilified for years had become a national icon.
The Search Is On
Brennan continued his work, amassing even more photographs and stories, collected in the new book They Must Fall: Muhammad Ali and the Men He Fought (ACC Art Books). Featuring encounters with legends like Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, and Larry Holmes, the bulk of the book is composed of lesser-known fighters Ali faced when he was building his name and profile as Cassius Clay.
Like Foreman, many fighters’ lives had taken an unexpected turn. Some, like Buster Mathis, Tony Esperti, Herb Siler were serving prison sentences, while Olympic gold medalist Leon Spinks worked at a McDonalds. Many were hard to find, but the most challenging of all was “Sweet Jimmy” Robinson, who lost in the first round of a 1961 fight. By 1979, Robinson was own on his luck, living off veteran’s benefits and staying in a cheap hotel in Overton, Florida.
Brennan spent two months tracking him until they finally met on a Friday night that November. Robinson smelled of liquor and cigarettes. They met the following morning at the railroad tracks, where they took a few shots. Brennan slipped him a 20-dollar bill, and then Robison left. “I’ve got a picture of him walking over the railway lines and that was the last time anyone ever saw him,” Brennan says.
Brennan concludes the book with portraits of Ali after retirement just as he took on the greatest opponent of his life, the disease that would eventually claim it. In an effort to make up for the years wrongfully stolen from his life by the US government, Ali pushed himself to the edge, making himself vulnerable to Parkinson’s, by fighting past his prime. But it was precisely this dedication, his determination, and his sacrifice that made Ali the G.O.A.T, “His whole life was, Ali had been warned by people he knew,” Brennan says, “and yet he defied the odds brilliantly.”
By Miss Rosen
Michael Brennan, Muhammad Ali and the Men He Fought
Book available here.