"I wish I'd kept a diary," Bingham says. "I wish I'd known you were going to become the Muhammad Ali the whole world knew."
But he did take pictures, and he got better at it. Before long the country started to rip apart at its racial seams, but then (as now) there weren't many black news photographers, and Bingham got his chance. After all, everybody liked him, and everybody trusted him. For LIFE, the Black Panthers let Bingham photograph their huge weapons cache, secure mat he would not reveal where he had shot the arsenal. But always Bingham would return to Ali, to be with him and photograph him. "I love to go places with him," he says, even now, in his 60th year. "I get so mad sometimes when I have to do something and I can't go with him."
The stacks of pictures began to pile up. Ten thousand, a hundred thousand, another hundred thousand. By now Bingham may have shot a half-million photos of Ali. Who knows? How many more snapshots has Bingham taken for people who spot Ali, jam their Instamatics into Bingham's hands and plead with him to take a picture of them with the Greatest? Muhammad Ali probably has had his picture taken more times than anyone in the history of the world—and probably had his picture taken by more people.
Now, though, his body slumps and his hands tremble and his eyes close, and Howard and Lonnie try to stir him. "Open your eyes, Ali," Howard snaps.
They are in a fancy studio in Manhattan. The fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo is taking Ali's picture for a restaurant advertisement. "Lonnie, his left eye is drooping," Howard calls out.
Lonnie says, "Ali, Halle Berry is here."
Don't they wish. Children and good-looking women open Ali's eyes. Luckily, two pretty young women, if not Halle Berry, arrive. The women are from IMG, which represents Ali. He will never be one of those stumblebum boxers scuffling for walking-around money. Poor Joe Louis was called America's Guest. Muhammad Ali is America's Honored Guest. Now that it is the end of the century, he is remembered all the more as we tote up the best recollections of the 1900s. Muhammad Ali! The greatest this! The finest that! Accept this honor! Take this award! And he loves it. But, of course, all the accolades, all the adulation, all the photo shoots don't stop him from shaking or from falling asleep. Open your eyes, Ali!
Ali spots one of the women, IMG attorney Catherine Lindsey, hugging Howard. "The famous Howard Bingham," Catherine coos.
Catherine happens to be blonde. Lonnie says, "Good. Muhammad likes blondes."
Howard hugs the other woman, Catherine's assistant, Sheila Willis, before he can be introduced. Ali takes note of this, too. His eyes don't droop anymore as he follows the track of Catherine. "He's flirting and doesn't think I can see," Lonnie says.