With the death of Muhammad Ali on June 3, the world lost one of its true greats. A gifted athlete, a passionate activist and a driven businessman, Ali was — above and beneath it all — a man with a giant, fierce heart.
Photographer Steve Schapiro first met Muhammad Ali in 1963, after he had amassed an impressive record of knockouts and verbal assaults on his opponents. Ali was still known as Cassius Clay, and he and Schapiro met at his mother Odessa’s house in Louisville, Kentucky.
“He was shy — very quiet, well-dressed and extremely polite,” Schapiro said. “He’d shadowbox around the living room, but beyond that, he wasn’t the Ali that you knew publicly, boasting and bragging.”
Schapiro recalled how the boxer loved kids and was known to ride bikes or play Monopoly with the neighborhood children. During the photo shoot, Ali asked Schapiro to play a game of Monopoly, but when Schapiro ran into trouble during the game, Ali insisted on loaning him the play-money so he could keep his properties.
“He didn’t want me to lose the game to the bank,” he said, “he wanted me to lose the game to him.”
A passion for justice got Ali started in the sport, and would remain a central theme throughout his career. At age 12, when his bike was stolen in the neighborhood, Ali told a nearby police officer he’d like to beat the thief up. The officer, Joe Martin, suggested he might need to learn to fight. Joe became Ali’s first boxing coach, and would see him through the first six years of his career.
Ali won gold in the 1960 Olympics, and upon returning home, was refused service in a local restaurant on account of his skin color. Enraged at the injustice and crestfallen for having represented a nation that would discriminate against him, Ali threw his Olympic medal into the Ohio River.
In 1964, after taking the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, Ali converted to Islam and renounced his given name of Cassius Clay to assume the name Muhammad Ali. As a conscientious objector against enlistment for the Vietnam War, Ali exclaimed “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong!” while also expressing religious disagreement with the war. Although Ali would pay dearly for standing by his beliefs — losing both his title and his license to fight in many states — he would become a torchbearer for the Civil Rights movement and a popular speaker at anti-war protests.
Ali’s fight for justice continued outside the ring. When his boxing career ended, he advocated for many groups including Native Americans, Palestinians and the Afghan people. He was named a Messenger of Peace by the UN, and even traveled to Afghanistan to meet with Hamid Karzai and speak on the importance of education for girls in the post-Taliban-ruled state.
Though perhaps inherently reserved, Ali was a champion of speaking with force when needed—both professionally and personally. On the drive from Louisville to New York City to meet with Ali’s hero Sugar Ray Robinson in 1963, Schapiro marveled at Ali’s sudden transformation. From the low-key, attentive son in his mom’s house to the bombastic public figure shouting out the car window, “Look at me! I’m beautiful! I am the greatest!” Schapiro witnessed the change from man to media whiz.
“I think he had a great sense of marketing. He knew how to bring attention to himself and to create publicity when it was necessary,” Schapiro said.
“And, he was an absolute delight.”