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The Lost Photographs
January 22, 2007
Newfound images document the time when Muhammad Ali, 65 this week, began to transform sports and popular culture
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January 22, 2007

The Lost Photographs

Newfound images document the time when Muhammad Ali, 65 this week, began to transform sports and popular culture

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MUHAMMAD ALI, who turned 65 on Wednesday, is a man of superlatives. He is the greatest, vainest, loudest, most beloved (after having been the most reviled) and most admired athlete in history. The most quoted, photographed, written about and discussed. The most inspiring. � So it is a surprise to come upon previously unpublished photos of the man taken at the moments when those adjectives began to be uttered, first by him, of course, and then by the rest of us. It is hard now to separate Muhammad Ali from the mythology that surrounds him. As he has been reduced by Parkinson's disease to a dignified epigone of the beautiful athlete he once was, we resort to the recollections--the images, the stories, the voice--that have become ingrained in our consciousness. Episodes of his life are part of our national saga, up there with George Washington at Valley Forge and Elvis Presley walking into Sun Records, the legend obscuring the man. Yet Muhammad Ali is that rarest of heroes, a man who, as you remove the gauzy layers of praise, the haze of hagiography, reinforces your best notions of him.

These photos of the boxer then known as Cassius Clay, from negatives lost for more than 40 years, present a few of those crucible moments from startling new angles and with revealing humanity. The photographer, Neil Leifer, is best known for capturing iconic images later in the heavyweight's career--the scowling champ standing over the sprawled Sonny Liston in their second fight and, with arms triumphantly raised, walking away from a floored Cleveland Williams at the Astrodome. Leifer may have added to that canon with these photos from Clay's 10-round win over Doug Jones in 1963 and the weigh-in before his title shot against Liston the next year. Clay's victory over Jones in a disputed decision reinforced the notion that going into the first Liston fight the impudent Louisville Lip had no chance.

It was in the maelstrom around the first Liston fight, starting with the weigh-in, that Clay began his transformation of sports and popular culture. The weigh-in for heavyweights was generally a pointless affair, and the photographers and writers gathered in the freight area of the Miami Beach Convention Center on the morning of Feb. 24, 1964, anticipated nothing more than the usual Joe Louis sort of posed square-off. But what Clay did caught even his cornermen by surprise. As he emerged from the dressing room, arms linked with Bundini Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson, accompanied by trainer Angelo Dundee, Clay danced through the crowd chanting, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble." He seemed so manic that several reporters speculated he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Clay taunted Liston, calling him a "big, ugly bear," and then predicted that Liston would go down in "eight, to prove I'm great."

In response, Liston, the fearsome champ widely held to be invincible, held up two fingers to indicate he would dispatch the challenger in the second.

"I'm ready to rumble now, chump," Clay shouted, and lunged at Liston. Dundee, who held him back, recalls, "It was all an act. He was making Liston think he was crazy, a scared kid."

Certainly, any possibility that Liston, who had done very little training for the fight, might take the voluble young fighter seriously was dismissed after the boxing commission doctor checked Clay's blood pressure and pronounced him "scared to death."

"Did I have Liston shook up?" Clay would ask his own doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, later that day. "I shook him up, didn't I?"

One night later, after Liston didn't answer the bell for the seventh round, Clay shook up much, much more. Immediately after the victory, as Clay lunged over Dundee and waved his fist at the crowd, he would shout, "I shook up the world. I'm the greatest. I am the king of the world. I'm so pretty. I'm a bad man. I shook up the world." You would be hard-pressed to come up with more than one utterance by any other athlete that has passed into the language. Yet this young fighter over the course of two days delivered a series of sporting statements that would become in the English language as ubiquitous as Polonius's advice to young Laertes. That moment of triumph, gloved fist extended to the crowd as he is both restrained and hugged simultaneously by Brown and Dundee, is precisely when "shook up the world" and "king of the world" passed through the membrane of our culture. This angle, the fish-eye lens overhead shot (far right), wasn't thought to exist until recently. It provides stark cartography of the instant, Ali in joyous triumph, Liston in despair slumped on his stool, just a few feet of canvas denoting the passing of the old world and the birth of the new.

This is the moment when all those superlatives would start to become reality. Here is the beginning of modern sport as we now take it for granted--as a part of our culture, as flawed and wonderful and complex and transcendent as the whole course of human events.