The unseen Ali

When the photographer Bill Peronneau visited Muhammad Ali at his Pennsylvania training camp, he had little idea that the greatest sportsman of the century was preparing for the fight of his life
MUHAMMAD ALI treads carefully now, each laboured step a withering reminder of what he was, what he came to represent, the extent to which he transcended boxing. Pictured here in Bill Peronneau's previously unpublished portrait - taken in his training quarters at Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, shortly before the epic contest against George Foreman in Zaire on 30 October 1974 that saw him regain the heavyweight championship - Ali's serene pose contradicts the stridency that marked sport's greatest career.

By the time the photograph was taken, Ali had become all things to all people - hero, traitor, scoundrel, rabble rouser, prophet, but above all the most remarkable sports figure the world has ever known. Fantasy thrived in his mind: for most people, dreams dissolve in the acid of life, but for the grandson of a slave who had taken a Muslim name and defied the US government, they were the very essence of his being. Seldom can a man have felt such a profound sense of destiny.

But there is nothing unusual in the playful warmth Ali shows towards the young white lad who had been brought to Deer Lake by his father - a triumph of charm in itself, which reveals much about his true nature. It's paradoxical perhaps, but there was always more to Ali than the stage acts his interrogators were required to suffer and the revamping of material that might or might not have been entertaining, but had almost certainly been heard before.

For many, Ali remains a prince of the 20th century, and even people who never miss an opportunity to boast that they are utterly uninformed about sport were in awe of his enormous talent for the most basic of physical contests. However, the concern felt for Ali when he set forth from Deer Lake to challenge for the undisputed title was understandable - and no less acute for the perky interjection of his trainer. "You should know better than to underestimate my guy," said Angelo Dundee. "Muhammad don't aim to end up in the hospital."

Dundee was speaking on the evening of 29 October 1974, about eight hours before the fight in Kinshasa. A dozen or so people, all but two of them Americans, were sitting around in Dundee's bungalow alongside the Zaire river where Ali had set up camp. Night had fallen, and the broad, verdant sweep of the river passing close to where Ali was resting spookily emphasised a mood of deep foreboding.

The novelist Budd Schulberg, one of many American celebrities who staunchly supported Ali throughout the years of exile imposed by the US government for refusing to be inducted for military service, held deep fears. In Schulberg's mind, as in the minds of most, Foreman appeared invincible, a man of great strength whose punches arrived with the impact of a wrecking ball. It wasn't necessary to invent a nom de guerre for the huge and brooding Texan who had thrown the heavyweight order into disarray in Kingston, Jamaica, on 22 January 1973 when he knocked out Joe Frazier after 95 seconds of the second round.

Foreman versus Ali was a natural progression - but, to general astonishment, it was set up for Kinshasa, drawn together by Don King, who had learned the value of outrageous communication along the way from the numbers racket he ran in Cleveland, to prison, to another racket known as boxing promotion.

Making some sense of it was not easy amid the shrillness that surrounded the challenger. Soaring from one fanciful proclamation to another, Ali was in terrific form, but bleak images were gathering in the minds of those who had established a function, real or illusory, at his side. Their raucous optimism carried little conviction.

Sport provides a convenient vehicle for exaggeration; success and failure, youth and ageing. When set against the ultimate verity, it is never thus - and yet the drama that unfolded in the Twentieth of May stadium was suffocatingly intense.

Of course, as long as there was strength in his legs, Ali would stick and move, taunt, parry, hold. But, astonishingly, he retreated to the ropes. An incredulous silence settled over the ringside, broken only by the screeched concern of his corner-men. Taking a huge risk, Ali swayed back over the top rope as Foreman closed in. Then a stinging combination of straight punches leaped into the champion's head.

The pattern didn't alter through rounds three and four, but in the fifth a terrible left hook pounded into Ali's head, quickly followed by another. In withstanding those blows Ali turned turned the contest. As though satisfied that he had drawn the ogre's strength, he took up the initiative.

At the start of the eighth, Foreman hit Ali with three head punches and then stumbled on to two counters. Sent sideways by a left, he went down from the following right. He struggled upright, but it was all over. The referee Zack Clayton had counted him out.

Together with one other British reporter, I came across Ali a few hours later. With a bodyguard, Pat Patterson, and his household staff as the only other listeners, he rambled on about the fight. He lay back on a settee, legs stretched on to a low table. "All those writers who said I was washed up, all those who thought I had nothing left but my mouth, all them who were waiting for me to get the biggest beatin' of all times - they thought George could do it for them, but now they know better"

It is unusual to hear Ali swear, and when he did it was only after checking that his aunt, Coretta Clay, was out of earshot. "I done fucked up a lot of minds," he said.