It’s been a few months now since Muhammad Ali passed away and I’ve tried to come up with something to post about the experience I had photographing him twice last year. I’m not a writer. I push buttons for a living so I hope this post makes sense and if anything gives insight to what it was like for me personally to photograph “The Greatest.”
When I first got the call from Brad Smith at Sports Illustrated about photographing Muhammad Ali I immediately realized the significance of this opportunity. I started thinking of all the celebrities and athletes I’ve been blessed to photograph and understood this was likely going to be an experience I’d never top. I’ve never been nervous on a shoot before or anxious and maybe it’s been my sports background or general life experience, but I definitely felt butterflies when planning this trip to Louisville. Maybe it was a sign.
My assistant, Andres Martinez and I tried to process what we were about to do for about 5 hours driving and setting up. I’m not really sure we knew what to expect. Our “goal” initially was to capture a portrait if possible while documenting the very private presentation of the W.E.B Du Bois medal from Harvard University. We planned to be ready for a portrait if possible but had to make the call on the spot if it wasn’t going to happen. The lit “portrait” didn’t happen but the experience did, followed a week later with another trip to Louisville to document the Muhammad Ali Sports Illustrated Legacy Award rededication event.
Some of the things I was able to witness in those two opportunities I’ll never forget. First, I watched as George Foreman seemed to relive his fight with Ali, tucked in a corner by himself watching it on a tv in the Ali Center. I also watched as George Foreman tell Muhammad Ali he wasn’t knocked out, rather he slipped in Africa (speaking of his loss to Ali). He also mentioned how Larry Holmes was there and one of the few to actually beat Muhammad Ali. Mr. Ali, keenly still mentally aware of the teasing slowly raised his fists and snarled at George Foreman. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Muhammad Ali was/is one of the most iconic and influential humans to have walked the planet in the last century and while often controversial and flawed like all of us, his legacy of goodwill transcends. I listened to the stories of those closest to him tell story after story of the good he accomplished in his lifetime. I personally recall watching him on the tv with the Olympic torch in the 1996 Olympics vividly as many do. I was in Atlanta for those games as a college student taking in history. Time does heal many wounds, not all as I understand the controversies surrounding his religious beliefs and the Vietnam War. However, I do believe his contributions to society as a global ambassador for peace and goodwill outweigh his political positions.
Embrace the good in people despite the differences you have with them. I think that’s what Muhammad Ali stood for. Nobody is perfect, not even The Greatest, but we can all strive for greatness if we make the effort.
Here are some of the images I will remember forever.