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            Back to Open Skies

On The Road With The Champ

22 June 2016

In 1974, Muhammad Ali was about to face a hulking George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle – the biggest test of his career to date. This is what is was like to be part of his entourage...

It was around 4.30am when the knock came at the door of my hotel room. As I slowly came to, I heard a voice: ‘Grab your pants and your camera, the champ is running.’”

It was early on Saturday, August 24, 1974, and Peter Angelo Simon, a young freelance photographer, had not expected his weekend assignment to begin so soon. Bleary-eyed, he made his way down to the hotel lobby and into the waiting car. A short drive out of town to the Pennsylvania countryside and he spotted the lone figure of Muhammad Ali, jogging along the road past fields and trees, his back to the approaching vehicle and his breath lingering in the morning air.

“This was the five-mile run he would do every day before breakfast,” Simon recalls. “I leant out of the window and took my first photo of him, literally as the sun was coming up with this huge blast of light. The car crawled behind him, and I was in and out, snapping away. When we got to the end he started warming down and whipping out punches.”

Simon had been commissioned by New Times magazine to spend two days with Ali at his Deer Lake training camp, a five-acre site near Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, where the boxing legend was based for most of the 1970s. By 1974, the 32-year-old former heavyweight champion was four years into his comeback, after his objection to the Vietnam War and refusal to be drafted had seen him stripped of both his title and his boxing licence in 1967.

After numerous appeals, he was now able to fight again, but it had meant three years away from the ring, and many believed that Ali’s best days were behind him. Victory over longtime rival Joe Frazier had come early in 1974, but the biggest test was weeks away – taking on the current champ, the brutal and undefeated George Foreman, for a clash in Zaire dubbed ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’.

“Foreman had these wrecking ball arms, he was so strong, and he would knock out most of his opponents in the first round,” Simon adds. “People thought, at best, that Ali would be beaten, and at worst… well, we just didn’t want to imagine.”

If there was any cause for concern, it wasn’t evident at Deer Lake. Ali himself appeared in good spirits, being the vocal, confident showman he was known as. He enjoyed having people around him, with members of his family present, including his mother, wife and children – his aunt ran the kitchen, and his father, Cassius Clay Sr, who was a sign painter, among other professions, would paint the names of boxing greats on boulders all over the site [“So Ali could be in the presence of other historic fighters,” says Simon]. While Deer Lake had the expected living quarters, a gym and a ring for sparring, it also had areas where Ali could receive guests, sit in his rocking chair and discuss poetry, all contained within the purpose-built log cabins.

Simon quickly understood the nickname that Ali had given Deer Lake. “He called it Fighter’s Heaven,” he says, which is the name chosen for his new book collecting many of the photos shot over the weekend – certain images are also on display at the exhibition, I Am The Greatest, being held at the O2 in London until August 31. “Deer Lake had everything he needed for his physical, emotional and spiritual preparation,” said Simon. “Every person there had a specific role that would help Ali do what he needed to. Some people weren’t sure what their role was, but Ali... he knew.”

The continued preparations included early-morning runs, gruelling workouts and sparring sessions, but also a few surprises, such as Ali visiting a care home for the elderly and hosting an exhibition match at a local high school. “He was always the centre of attention and it had become part of his routine, which was fascinating,” says Simon. “I remember at the care home, he walked up to an old lady in her wheelchair and said, ‘I’m looking for trouble,’ and I have a shot of her with her dukes up and a huge grin on her face. Then in the high school, I have a photo of him walking in; all eyes are on him and he’s the focus of this incredible adoration.”

Caught in the moment, Simon admits to shooting 33 rolls of film over the course of the two days, with Ali commenting that nobody had ever taken so many pictures of him. The only shot he didn’t take, in fact, was one with Ali himself, but he did witness Ali practising something that would prove vital in his battle with Foreman. “I got to see him trying the rope-a-dope technique with his sparring partner,” Simon reveals. “He would lean back on the ropes and absorb his opponent’s punches, so that he couldn’t be hurt.”

Ultimately, it was this strategy that decided the outcome of the fight. Ali used the ropes from the second round onwards as Foreman tired himself out by throwing one blow after another, with none taking immediate effect. As Foreman said in 2011, “I thought he was just one more knockout victim until, about the seventh round, I hit him hard to the jaw and he held me and whispered in my ear, ‘That all you got, George?’ I realised this ain’t what I thought it was.”

Ali came off the ropes in the eighth round, a clearly exhausted Foreman standing before him, and landed a devastating five-punch combination that sent the champion tumbling to the canvas. Foreman got to his feet, but the referee stopped the fight. Ali had regained the heavyweight title, a decade after he first claimed it from Sonny Liston.

Ali would continue to defend the title for the next four years – losing to and then regaining it from Leon Spinks, making him the only boxer in history to win the accolade three times. He finally retired in 1981, but it’s the fight with Foreman, when so many doubted he could win, that arguably remains his most memorable. “He believed in himself so much that I don’t think he ever felt he could lose,” Simon concludes. “In one of my photos, he’s running along the roadside with his arms up in the air – the sign of victory. If no-one else had been around, would he still have made that gesture? I have absolutely no doubt that he would. That idea of being ‘The Greatest’ was inherent in his personality. He believed that he was here to do something special, and lucky for us he did.”

Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974 runs until May 28 at Serena Morton II gallery in London serenamorton.com. I Am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at the O2 runs until August 31 at the O2 in London aliattheo2.com. Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974 is published by Reel Art Press out now, US$57, reelartpress.com