Michael Brennan: 'In a hundredth of a second I shot the picture I had always dreamed of'

The photographer tells James Lawton the story behind one of the most iconic images of Muhammad Ali
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If it is true what they say, if a picture can indeed paint a thousand words, prize-winning photographer Michael Brennan has just been elected to an inner circle of eloquence.

He has been put there by his most rewarding – and cooperative – subject in a lifetime of shooting large slices of life and death across the world.

Muhammad Ali did it the other day when he signed with a shaky hand the iconic image Brennan caught in the great fighter's training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, 34 years ago.

He did it 20 times for the limited edition of a print that Pasadena gallery owner Chris Forney is submitting for inclusion in America's National Portrait Gallery, after running his finger over the surface of the picture, tracing the beads of sweat and the bumps and lumps that had come in the ring.

He then said in the whispering voice that once bellowed at the world: "I can feel the texture of all that sweat and hard work. I can feel my life."

Brennan, who had an award-winning stint for British national newspapers before moving to New York and now lives in Costa Rica, conjures up easily the moment of his dream shot.

It came on one of his regular runs from Manhattan up to the Pennsylvanian hills, often in the company of a withering hangover, when he knew that Ali's door would always be open and there would be shots to keep any number of wolves from the door.

"Ali used to joke that he gave me access I could never expect from Barbra Streisand or Frank Sinatra and of course he was right," Brennan says. "I got the picture when he was working for his fight with Earnie Shavers in Madison Square Garden in 1977. In one hundred and twenty fifth of a second I shot the picture I had always dreamed of.

"He had been sparring and a television guy had been in the ring with him shooting film but for a few seconds he came into the corner of the ring where I was and I saw the expression on his face, I could see everything that lay behind it.

"Sweat was caked over his face and some of the scars from his many fights stood out, sharp as tacks."

Forney's interest has proved something of a windfall for Ali and Brennan. He has paid advances to both in his belief that when Ali took a pause in his draining effort to push back the years – he was entering a decline that could be delayed only by extraordinary courage and the remnants of unique talent – and Brennan – his dark shades worn to obscure the effects of the night before pushed on to his forehead to permit a better focus – seized his chance, a true moment of artistic eloquence was achieved.

The gallery owner says: "The picture caught something far more complex and nuanced than the usual images of victorious and vanquished sportsmen and women. It revealed something of the inner life of the icon that Ali has become."

Soon after the picture was taken Ali took his first step in the nightmarish descent towards the time when he took too much punishment, when Teddy Brenner, the Madison Square Garden matchmaker shook his head and said: "I never thought I would live to see the day when Muhammad Ali's best asset was his ability to take a punch."

Shavers, the hardest puncher of his day, pounded Ali over 15 rounds but the champion responded to every assault with moments of brilliance, with haunting flashes of the best of his talent. Ali got the decision but back in the dressing room he screamed for the lights to be turned off. He said they were like needles going into his eyes.

His medical adviser, Ferdie Pacheco, quit that night. In the post-fight bedlam Pacheco kept repeating: "Champ, it's got to stop. You're being hurt everywhere, in your head, in your body, even in your bowels."

Three years later, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Pacheco watched his old corner-mate Angelo Dundee throw in the towel when Larry Holmes, Ali's former sparring partner, beat him systematically over seven rounds. Ali looked superb coming into the ring, sleek from pre-fight preparation which had relied heavily on diuretics, but it was a dangerous illusion.

For Brennan there is satisfaction in the fact that he has helped to provide Ali with a late but substantial pay-day. "In all the time I spent around him," he reports, "I only saw him working on one advertisement." It was a public service ad appealing on behalf of a Fire Brigade harassed by false alarms. He was also the poster boy for a modest-paying anti-cockroach powder.

Yet on the eve of the Shavers fight he took a stroll down Seventh Avenue and stopped the traffic. That, though, was back when no one could really calculate his worth.

'1977' Portrait of Muhammad Ali Archival Fine Art Pigment Print 48x62". Edition of 20. Published by Artworks Editions/ Artworksgallery.com, 2011

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