Ali with his guard down

Images marking 70 years of Muhammad Ali’s life are a fitting tribute to the man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, says Sarah Freeman.

In the Ring with Ali
In the Ring with Ali

Remembering the countless hours he had spent in the gym, Muhammad Ali once said of those gruelling early years, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion’.”

They were fateful words. The man so often referred to as the greatest sportsman of all time turned 70 last year and while he his now suffering from the advanced effects of Parkinson’s disease, when he appeared as part of the Olympic opening ceremony of London 2012 he received much the same adulation as he had when he first became Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1964, aged just 22.

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Ali would go on to win the championship a further two times, but of course it wasn’t just his sporting prowess which endeared him to the public. There were those press conferences, peppered with rhyming couplets and homespun philosophy, where he entertained and occasionally outraged, and those interviews with Michael Parkinson where the pair jostled for power in verbal sparring matches which were impossible to turn off. Parky has since graciously admitted that he lost every time.

By the time Dutch photographer Christina Jansen met the boxer in 1986, he had been retired five years. However, while the famous Ali shuffle might not have been as slick as it once had been, the great man still left a lasting impression.

“He has an incredible aura, with a tremendous wit and intelligence,” Jansen has said of those first meetings. “More than just your average boxer, you see all his bravado, yet it’s all a game.”

Jansen’s images captured a softer side to Ali, one who could let his guard slip now there was no opponent looking to pounce on any chink in his armour. At his peak he was the most photographed man in the world and a few years ago Jansen decided to pull together a major retrospective which was first shown last summer in London to mark Ali’s 70th birthday.

Featuring one image for every year of his life, In the Rings with Ali includes work from the likes of Ken Regan, Carl Fischer, Terry O’Neill and Sonia Katchian and the collection is about to get its northern premiere in Bradford.

“I wanted to show Ali the man, not just Ali the boxer,” says Jansen. “Part of the aim of the exhibition is to motivate young people today to have respect for themselves, others and most importantly believe in themselves.”

It took Jansen two years to finalise the selection and while many of the images showcase the most memorable moments from an illustrious career, the collection also includes a number of photographs of Ali’s life outside the ring. Shown alongside poetry and memorabilia, recording not just his contribution to sport but also his humanitarian work through the decades, the event is designed to promote Ali’s philosophy that “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: a desire, a dream, a vision.”

In the Rings with Ali has been brought to Yorkshire thanks to the joint efforts of the Bradford-based charity QED-UK, which works to improve the economic and social standing of disadvantaged ethnic minorities and Harrogate’s Cause UK, a marketing and fundraising agency which specialises in working with charities and which helped stage the original exhibition.

“Ali is a global icon,” says Adeeba Malik, deputy CEO of QED-UK.

“He shows what greatness can be achieved with belief, passion, and poetry. His philosophy transcends ethnicity, class and creed, and his message around social justice resonates with our work to improve the social and economic position of disadvantaged ethnic minorities.”

The official launch next week will be attended by young boxers from the Bradford Police and College Boxing Academy, as well as Richard Dunn, who fought Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight title in 1976. Dunn, perhaps unsurprisingly was the only Yorkshireman ever to fight Ali, and while he lost in the fifth after being repeatedly knocked down, British fans have always maintained he made one of the most courageous shows of any British fighter when he faced Ali.

“Muhammad Ali is one of the last living legends of our time,” says Halifax-born Dunn. “I’m proud to support this event that extols all the wonderful values and philosophies of the great man. I really hope young people come and see the exhibition and get the passion and direction that he so naturally inspires. It isn’t just about boxing and sport, but about being the best you can be in life, finding your passion and making it happen.”

Since leaving the ring, Ali has used his influence to promote humanitarian causes, including poverty relief, education, adoption and race relations. Having co-founded the Global Village Champions Foundation, his efforts 
have helped provide 232m meals to 
those suffering food poverty and 
as well as being the international ambassador of debt relief organisation Jubilee 2000, he has also raised millions of dollars for research into Parkinson’s Disease.

No other sportsman has done so much, in so many areas, while fighting severe progressive illness. Malik adds: “Bradford has been a City of riches and a City of destitution. In a City of Dreams, Ali’s are worth fighting for.”

The private view of In the Rings with Ali will take place at the Midland Hotel in Bradford on June 20 and the exhibition will then be open to the public until June 30.