Iconic Spotlight : Muhammad Ali, by Michael Brennan

Deer Lake, PA, September 17, 1977.

For a Muhammad Ali training session, the gym was surprisingly quiet.

Ali had carried out his usual routine involving light shadow boxing, alone, lacing his gloves in a contemplative silence.

However, this was no ordinary training session. In twelve days, Ali would face a fearsome, hard-hitting heavyweight named Earnie Shavers in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Three sparring partners were selected for their similarities of style, toughness and roughness akin to the rugged Shavers.

That late summer heatwave had left the gym uncomfortably hot, likely a bonus for Ali since he would need to shed a little poundage to come in at the right weight. Just an opened door near one of the corners of the ring allowed some early afternoon light and much needed ventilation into the stuffy surroundings. Ali’s strenuous workout with the three chosen sparring partners left him exhausted. He ripped his famous Everlast headguard off and leaned with his head cradled in his arms facing the open door.

At that moment, a cameraman from ABC-TV flooded the scene with a direct, searing bright piercing light. Ali, never one to ignore a camera whether still or movie, slowly raised his head and looked straight into the ABC’s lens who by then was shooting over my left shoulder.

A split second I will never forget. The exhausted, sweaty head shot has always been pretty much a stereotype, but this was Muhammad Ali, arguably the most recognised face in the world. Using a Nikon F2 with a 200mm f4 lens with the focus racked as close as possible and with the cameraman’s piercing strobe like light combined with the soft daylight from the open door shooting at 250th; at f4 the result was this ‘1977’ image.

Some years later I showed Ali the picture I had taken. He was training in The Bahamas for a shabby farewell fight against an opponent called Trevor Berbick.

He traced his right index finger over the sweat beads in the photograph and mumbled “all them years, all them years of hard work.”

Available as a limited edition, fine art print, signed and numbered by Michael Brennan. Contact the Fine Art Team more information.

View more from the Michael Brennan archive here.

filter search results by