Art & Photography

Playing the Champ: Muhammad Ali

Following the death of Muhammad Ali, American photographer Steve Schapiro writes about an early encounter with The People’s Champion exclusively for PORT

Muhammad Ali, Monopoly, Louisivill, KY, 1963 copyright Steve Schapiro
Muhammad Ali, Monopoly, Louisivill, KY, 1963 copyright Steve Schapiro

I shot Muhammad Ali when he was still Cassius Clay back in 1963 for Sports Illustrated and spent a few days with him at his parent’s house in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali was 21 and had just won the Golden Gloves with 15 knockouts. I played Monopoly with him and I was losing – but not losing absolutely everything. He kept on loaning me money so that he would eventually own everything on the board. With this photo I loved his expression and knew that I’d captured something special. We had a great time together. He would walk around town with the Monopoly board under his arm and play with all the local kids. He loved riding his bike with the kids, he just liked to play with everyone.

After 4 or 5 days in Louisville we drove up to New York as Ali was due to meet with Sugar Ray Robinson at his gym, one of his big heroes. On the drive up to New York he was so excited that he was yelling out of the window at everyone he saw. We got to New York and waited and waited but Sugar Ray didn’t show up as arranged. Then we drove down 125th Street and we saw Sugar Ray walking from his club to his office. This was the only time I ever saw Ali become very quiet. Maybe Sugar Ray didn’t realize who Ali was at the time. However, they quickly went on to become great friends.

Heroes: Steve Schapiro runs until 20 Aug 2016 at Atlas Gallery, 49 Dorset St, London W1U 7NF