The New Yorker
In August, 1974, as Muhammad Ali was preparing to face George Foreman for the heavyweight title, in Zaire, the photographer Peter Angelo Simon visited Fighter’s Heaven, Ali’s training compound in the rural town of Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, and took more than a thousand pictures of the fighter in the course of two days. Those photographs, most of which have never before been published, are collected in the forthcoming book, “Muhammad Ali Fighter’s Heaven 1974.” The series captures Ali in his various public and private modes: holding court in a rocking chair; sparring, shirtless, in the ring; practicing what would become his famous rope-a-dope strategy during a public demonstration; flashing his incomparable smile, or else looking down, or away, lingering with his thoughts.
By the time of Simon’s visit, Ali was already one of the most-photographed men in history—and, as such, was an expert subject. But Simon was looking for something different. “Ali understood I was not interested in his posing or mugging for the camera but in observing the reality of his preparation for the pivotal fight just a month away,” Simon writes in the book. Ali was always busy at the work of telling his own story, both starring in and directing his very public life. Take, for instance, the famous boulders that Ali had around the compound, with the names of boxing greats painted on them. These rocks were a set of readymade metaphors, part of the knowing mythmaking—of his own tremendous power, of the rigors of physical training, and of the other men with whom he battled in the ring or else shadow-boxed in the greater history of the sport—that Ali was able to manage in real time. If Ali was the mover of mountains, here were those mountains.
Deer Lake, where Ali prepared for many of his biggest fights, beginning in 1972, was a quiet place where he could train in relative peace, but, as Simon’s photographs remind us, Muhammad Ali was never wholly alone. He was surrounded by people, beginning with those whom, Simon recalls, “he felt best with”: his mother and father and Aunt Coretta, along with his training staff and entourage. But there was also a stream of well-wishers, from Stokely Carmichael to locals from just up the road. Simon shows the camp, with a rough-hewn log cabin as its central meeting place, as a comfortable space where all were made to feel welcome. Ali was as close as America has ever had to a royal figure, and, like other kings or queens, he was tasked with the constant demands of granting audiences. Like the rarest and most beloved royal figures, he did it with a grace that bestowed dignity upon those who came before him.
Even Simon’s photographs of Ali in apparent solitude, in gray sweats, running on a rural road in the early hours of the morning, belie the notion of solitude. There was the photographer, along with Ali’s trainers, trailing behind him in a car. “Ali was nourished by people,’ Simon writes; in return, his presence was a nourishment to others. During the two days Simon spent in Pennsylvania, Ali visited an old-folks home (where a man mistook him for Joe Louis) and sparred in public at the large indoor ring that he’d built on the property. Simon captures, on the faces of those who met Ali, all the dumbstruck awe and joy that he was able to bring forth.
In a foreword to the book, the documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker writes that “Ali was interested in history and saw value in the creation of a record of his activities at a crucial moment in his life.” Ali was never merely a subject of photographers, or writers, or of the dreams of the people who idolized him. He was vitally present, like a magician, conjuring all the amazing sights himself. Following the announcement of Ali’s death this weekend, this gift was summed up by another American conjurer, Bob Dylan, the star of Pennebaker’s film “Dont Look Back.” Upon hearing of Ali’s death, Dylan wrote, “If the measure of greatness is to gladden the heart of every human being on the face of the earth, then he truly was the greatest. In every way he was the bravest, the kindest and the most excellent of men.”