"The fight is won or lost away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out on the road, long before I dance under those lights." So said the late Muhammad Ali, the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, a quote that formed the inspiration for Peter Angelo Simon's photostudy of the fighter as he prepared for the biggest night of his career.
In October 1974, Muhammad Ali would attempt to regain the world heavyweight boxing championship title that was stripped from him when he refused the Vietnam draft seven years earlier.
He faced the undefeated George Foreman in Zaire, Africa, in the fight dubbed ‘The Rumble in The Jungle’.
Only weeks before, on August 24-25, photographer Peter Angelo Simon was invited to experience the private world of the iconic boxer as he prepared, mentally and physically, for the biggest fight of his life.
“Forty-two years ago, I photographed Muhammad Ali in the rural Pennsylvania sanctuary he called ‘Fighter’s Heaven’ as he prepared for the greatest contest of his career,” says Peter Angelo Simon, who has photographed on commission for the New York Times magazine, as well as exhibiting in museums and galleries internationally, including the Smithsonian.
“Here was the most famous and contentious personality on the planet in his private retreat – the eye of the public hurricane – which was most of his life. While a global audience was fixated on his fate, I was able to record aspects of Ali virtually unknown.”
Reel Art Press and Serena Morton gallery present a photobook and exhibition of rare photographs from Simon’s two-day photoessay, the majority of which have never been published. They Ali unguarded, away from the glare of the media spotlight at his Pennsylvania sanctuary.
“I was astonished by what I discovered at Deer Lake,” says Simon. “The camp had an air of playfulness and creativity – power boulders bearing the names of boxing greats of the past, magic tricks, tea and poetry, Ali relaxing in a rocking chair receiving visitors in a log cabin.
“While Ali prepared his body with rigorous physical training, the camp’s congenial atmosphere was clearly essential to the nourishment of his soul. Everything I saw at the camp, I felt, was part of Ali’s imaginative formula for success.”
“In the next two days I went everywhere with Ali – an old people’s home, an exhibition match, watching him practicing the ‘Rope-a-Dope’, taking tea and talking poetry with a visitor. I shot 33 rolls in the two days. Ali said nobody had ever taken so many pictures of him.”
These pictures were taken when Muhammad Ali was thirty-two years old, at the peak of his form. Away from the ring, Ali was notoriously quick with his tongue, courting the media circus that surrounded him.
But these rare and candid images strip back the celebrity persona to show a thoughtful, focused and determined fighter.
From five-mile runs at dawn and intense sessions in the gym, Simon captures how Ali’s profound psychological discipline was allied with a singular ability to enjoy himself in the thick of the fight. Few photographers got as close to the boxer behind the legend.
Muhammad Ali, Fighter’s Heaven 1974: Photographs by Peter Angelo Simon opens Friday 8 April until 28 May 2016 at the Serena Morton Gallery, 345 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 6HA. More information here.