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 Pictured here in Bill Peronneau's previously unpublished portrait - taken in his training quarters at Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, shortly before the epic contest against George Foreman in Zaire on 30 October 1974 that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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried