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 Pictured here in Bill Peronneau's previously unpublished portrait - taken in his training quarters at Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, shortly before the epic contest against George Foreman in Zaire on 30 October 1974 that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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker