Today Muhammad Ali celebrates his 73rd birthday. “The Greatest” remains so even though Parkinson’s Disease continues to ravage the extraordinary champion of the ring and a true warrior for social justice. This week’s look back at past photographs in a very small way pays honor to the most dominant sports figure of my lifetime.
On Friday, December 11, 1981, I photographed Ali’s last fight in the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre in Nassau, Bahamas. Billed as the “Drama in Bahama,” I was on assignment for CBS Sports. I joined a television crew that consisted of on-air talent Pat O’Brien, friend Dan Lauck as producer, along with a videographer and sound man. My years in Arizona covering a variety of fights both in that area and in Las Vegas led CBS to contact me.
These were still the days of seemingly unlimited budgets for the television sports departments trying to gain an in-depth journalistic foothold into the sports world and its dominating personalities. Even at 39, and well past his prime, Ali continued to be sport’s most dominating personality, and a story worth pursuing.
The day before the fight, I photographed all the usual antics of a boxing weigh-in followed by a visit with Ali at his rented condominium. Before O’Brien could get his video interview with Ali and ask many of the questions written by Lauck, Ali treated us to a magic show by the great prestidigitator himself. In his youth, Cassius Clay – Ali’s given name – loved magic shows. His faith, however, disdained sleight of hand. Ali still performed his show, but the faithful follower of Islam then went back through every trick revealing the secret behind each illusion. Sadly, I was not allowed to photograph that portion of the afternoon’s events. Nevertheless, every moment remains cherished.
Unfortunately, Ali no longer had the magic in the ring where he once vanquished Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and many others, with a style and grace that fascinated the world. Ali’s fight with Berbick came soon after his shockingly poor performance in his fight with Larry Holmes that ended with a knockout. Much of the emphasis of the CBS story involved the growing concerns that Ali suffered from brain damage as a result of the many head blows he endured over his long career. Certainly, Ali’s speech was slow and slurred during his interview. Sadly, we now know the reality of the early onset of Parkinson’s Disease yet to be discovered.
Held in the outdoor stadium, the ring sat in the middle of the soccer pitch. Rolls of fat could be seen as Ali slumped onto his stool in his corner between rounds. He no longer “floated like a butterfly” and could not “stink like a bee.” Such poetic lines that exemplified Ali taking boxing to heights never seen were all history now.
After the 10-round loss, Ali held forth one last time in a dilapidated locker room filled to overflowing with media and admirers. Looking very weary, Ali sat with his third wife, Veronica, next to him. Kneeling at the feet of Ali, the 27-year-old actor John Travolta could be heard crying out, “You can’t quit, Champ. You just can’t quit. You still can do it.” Those cries added to the final surreal moments of the evening.
However, my night was far from over. Due to the contractual obligations of the day, CBS could not videotape the fight. The fight portion of the Sports Spectacular piece that would run on Sunday afternoon needed to be shown through my photographs.
At the Nassau airport, a private Lear jet awaited the CBS crew, and me. Immediately after take-off, the lights of Miami glowed in the distance and grew larger and brighter as we made the quick flight to Florida where a limousine whisked us to a photo lab, that at my request, and with CBS’ money, stayed open all night for us. With the film developed, and after my edit, the videographer slapped each print onto a vacuum board and began zooming and panning over each image for dramatic effect.
As dawn approached, another ride from the lab to a CBS studio allowed me to watch the long process of editing and completing the lengthy piece. After a quick shower in a hotel room, I was back on a plane flying to Phoenix, sleeping soundly in first-class, no less. In route, the piece on the great Muhammad Ali aired for all of America to see, and there on the screen was a credit with my name I will always cherish.
The photographs attached with this piece are not the images CBS used, however. Those negatives remain the property of CBS and are not in my possession. My hope is that out of my rejects from the shoot, you might get some idea of what it meant to photograph the man who is still “The Greatest.” Happy Birthday, Mr. Ali. Thank you.