‘What artist could ever tire of Muhammad Ali?’
Ahead of the New York sale of a complete portfolio of four Andy Warhol screenprints of Muhammad Ali — signed by both artist and subject — we speak to Davis Miller, author of three best-selling books on Ali, and the co-curator of the touring exhibition on the man described as ‘the greatest of all time’
Andy Warhol photographed Muhammad Ali for the first time as part of his 1977 Athletes series. This group of works featured other sports stars of the era, such as the golfer Jack Nicklaus, Brazilian soccer hero Pele and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and was initiated by the West Coast art collector and sports fanatic Richard Weisman.
At the time of their first encounter, Muhammad Ali was — for the third time — the World Boxing Association Heavyweight Champion, and Andy Warhol was approaching the peak of his celebrity. They could not have been more different.
The stars of sport were a natural progression for Warhol and his preoccupation with fame and celebrity status. ‘I said that the athletes were better than movie stars and I don't know what I'm talking about because athletes are the new movie stars,’ he once said.
Warhol travelled to Ali’s training camp in Pennsylvania to photograph and interview the boxer with Weisman, his business manager Fred Hughes, and the author Victor Bockris. Warhol’s images capture the essence of Ali, with his raw power and focus highlighted in the composition’s clenched fists and fixed stare.
Here Davis Miller, the award-winning author of Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts and two other books on the boxing great — as well as being co-curator of the touring exhibition I Am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali — discusses his long and intimate relationship with Ali, and offers his insights on Ali’s relationship with Warhol and the pictures he produced.
Warhol photographed Ali for the Athletes series in 1977, which was a key moment in your journey with Ali, wasn’t it?
Davis Miller: It was. Shortly after Warhol photographed Ali I attempted to get married at his fight against Earnie Shavers. I was in my first semester at a southern state university, and it was my first visit to New York. I was a small-town, rural southerner who was acting worldly in order to impress his then girlfriend. We drove straight to Madison Square Garden, got tickets and then attempted to get married at the fight. Unfortunately, there was a three-day waiting period and we were already out of money, so we didn’t get married in the end.
Your first meeting with Ali took place in 1975. Tell us a bit about how that came about and your feelings about Ali before you met him for the first time.
DM: He was my childhood hero, and it’s not really much of an overstatement to say that he saved my life after my mother died unexpectedly when I was 11 years old. I blamed myself for her death — I was morose, stopped eating, stopped even taking fluids, and was admitted to hospital a couple of times. The second time I came out, I was sitting sadly in front of my dad’s black and white television, and there was this voice — and this face — saying, ‘I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I’m pretty, I can’t possibly be beat.’
He lit me up and saved me from what was otherwise a really bleak adolescence. I was bullied regularly at high school, but there was a safe place inside me that no one could touch — and Ali owned that. In some sense, I felt this organic connection to him.
When I got out of school, I decided to go off and become ‘Muhammad Ali junior’. I became a committed athlete and eventually a professional kick-boxer, and in 1975 I got the opportunity to spar with Ali at his Deer Lake training camp in Pennsylvania.
How would you describe him?
DM: An odd, spiritual, somewhat psychopathic witch-doctor-raconteur-street-mystic!
You caught him with a couple of good shots, didn’t you?
DM: I did! I’d watched him every waking hour since I was 11, and the reason I was able to catch him was not so much my skill level, it was that I threw shots at him he had never seen — kick-boxing shots.
He was sleepwalking until that point but then he came off the ropes, George Foreman-style. He bounced and hit me with a single jab — lightly. Suddenly I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear. My legs went to soup and anyone else would have knocked me out with one more shot. What Ali did instead was he draped his arm around me and held me up. And then he whispered in my ear: ‘You’re fast, and you sure can hit… but you’re so little!’
And you met him again, many years later in his home town of Louisville. How did that come about — and how did that chance encounter change your life?
DM: It was a Friday in 1988 and I had just found out that I was losing my job. I was working in video shops, and once again I was morose. I was married with two young children, we had a considerable mortgage, car payments, and I was frightened. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Coincidentally, I drove past Ali’s mother’s house on the way home after learning I was losing my job. I glanced across the street and saw this block-long ivory-coloured recreation vehicle, with license plates that read, ‘The Greatest’. I mean, who else would that be in Louisville, Kentucky?
I became immediately nervous. I drove past the house, but eventually worked up my courage, turned around, and parked up behind the Winnebago. As I reached my hand out to knock, Ali opened the door. He stood there, looking as big as God.
By then he’d had Parkinson’s disease for over ten years, but officially less than that. He waved me in, very gently with two fingers of his right hand, did some magic tricks, signed everything imaginable, and then we got out of the Winnebago and onto his mother’s front lawn where we sparred for five or ten minutes. His mother’s house was on a corner lot, and cars stopped. People cranked down their windows and were yelling, ‘Hey champ’. Then he leaned over and whispered in my ear: ‘Come on in the house’. He invited me in for dinner and it changed my life — that single evening made me a writer.
Why do you think Warhol was so interested in Ali?
DM: It was a commission, but I also think it was to do with the idea of American violence, which was something that had long interested Warhol. I think that the Polaroids he shot of Ali and then developed into screenprints are interesting, because what you’re seeing is a dispassionate Ali. That’s not the Ali that we typically see. When he was not intrigued with something, he almost ceased to exist — he would go thoroughly blank. I think Warhol was maybe a bit stunned by that.
‘He was so beautiful, and had a body that may have been better than the sculptures made by the Greeks — certainly as good as those made by Michelangelo!’
From what I have read about their meeting, Ali went into one of his spiels on Islam and race. This wasn’t particular to Warhol but something Ali did thousands of times. 1977 was around the time when his ego was most out of control. The Ali I knew had grown up considerably, maybe partly or even chiefly because of his Parkinson’s disease. He had become wise. Bill Clinton said at his memorial that Ali became a greater man after boxing. I think it’s true — I think Ali became an ailing family member to the world through his Parkinson’s.
On that first evening together in Louisville in 1988, I asked him, ‘Does it bother you that you’re a great man and you’re not being allowed to be great?’ He pointed at me with a shaking finger: ‘I know why this has happened. God is telling me and telling you, that I’m just a man, just like everyone else.’ That’s not just pop mythology — Homer could have written that.
Thanks to Warhol, Ali became part of the pantheon, and the paintings were soon selling for $25,000 — a lot of money at the time. Ali’s reaction to this was, ‘Look at me! White people gonna pay 25,000 dollars for my picture! This little negro from Kentucky couldn't buy a 1,500 dollar motorcycle a few years ago and now they pay 25,000 dollars for my picture!’
DM: It was unimportant to him. As his wife Lani told me, not long after his death, ‘Muhammad always says if you can’t hold it in your hand, it doesn’t mean anything.’ I think that is true. When the people who produced the Ali exhibition reached out to me, they recognised there was not much in the way of artefacts from his life. The reason for that is that Ali gave everything away — cars, money, and even a palace that a Saudi Arabian prince once gave him. He never even walked into it — he gave it to a children’s charity.
What would Ali make of the prices these pictures by Warhol now command?
DM: He’d take a pride in it — he never tired of looking at himself!
Would you agree that Ali was a work of art in himself?
DM: You can’t discount Ali’s great physical beauty in who he became. He looked almost classically Greek. He was so beautiful, and had a body that may have been better than the sculptures made by the Greeks — certainly as good as those made by Michelangelo! In moments he could look very black, but in other moments, he doesn’t look black at all — or white or green or Asian, for that matter. He looks singular… What artist could ever get tired of Ali? What musician? What composer? He was a piece of art and was made for artists. I’ll miss him every day for the rest of my life.
Approaching Ali — A Reclamation in Three Acts by Davis Miller is out now