I never thought I would hang out with my hero, Muhammad Ali
By Andy Hall
In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would be hanging out spending time with my hero Muhammad Ali, let alone have the opportunity to get to see him; but I did just that when me and the renowned writer and sports journalist Kevin Mitchell were commissioned to follow the boxing promoter Don King around New York, doing a profile on him for the Observer Sports Monthly magazine.
On the last day of our trip to NYC before flying home, we get to visit Louis Farrakhan, and Ali who is in town must have heard from his Nation of Islam sources that King is in Manhattan and he wants to meet his old promoter whom he hasn’t seen since the days of the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thriller in Manilla, back in the mid-seventies.
So the next thing I know, Kevin and I are sitting with the champ, with his wife Lonnie, and Don King in Ali’s mid-town hotel suite. A stupid, wide grin plants right there on my face for the next hour or so. I am with Ali, listening to Ali and King reminisce about the old days.
Ali with Parkinson’s disease is struggling to speak of course, sometimes even struggling to keep his eyes open; but every now and then he has moments of complete lucidity – his razor-sharp wit busting out; cracking jokes. He’s telling us he’s going to make a comeback at sixty. He’s 58 – my age now.
Just two good heavyweights – the champ throws a jab, biting his bottom lip – to get into shape.
Two or three top big guys. Ten rounds a piece. Then I’m ready.
Sixty! Nobody ever wins the title at sixty. Sixty!
Ain’t nobody ever won the title at sixty, right?
He also doesn’t waste the opportunity to take the piss out of Don King when he can. You can see he is frustrated at King trying to dominate the conversation with King’s big booming voice.
During the chat Ali breaks away from it occasionally to show me some magic tricks. One of the tricks I remember involved a disappearing handkerchief. Another a false thumb. He showed me how it was done.
At various points when I am not totally transfixed by his charisma, I’m itching to put my camera to my face and capture The Greatest, sitting there relaxed, with his Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned, showing his belly, but I get firm looks from his wife Lonnie – even when I ask politely – telling me that I can only take his portrait at the end of the visit. She’s very protective.
It’s Will Smith on the phone
At some point, Ali’s mobile phone rings. It’s Will Smith who at the time is playing him in his Hollywood biopic that is still under production. Lonnie puts the phone on speaker mode and we listen to Ali listening to Will Smith giving his best Ali impression
I’m the greatest! I’m the Greatest! I’m so pretty!
– too much mirth.
Definitely the most surreal experience of my life; sitting there, taking it all in, not quite believing it.
In the end, I do my portraits of Ali after much fussing around him by Lonnie, making sure his shirt buttons are all done up. And then I ask somebody to take a pic of me with Ali. This is May 2,000, before mobile phones and selfies.
Don King grabs my camera and takes a snap of me with my hero – which is why you see a thumb poking into the frame bottom left – that’s his.
Kev Mitchell grabs my other camera and takes a picture of Don King taking a picture of me and Ali – which appears in the feature.
Me with that ear-to ear grin that still hadn’t left my face from the moment I walked into the room and hung out with The Greatest Of All Time…
Andy Hall is based in London and has been a freelance photographer since 1989. His work has taken him on a wide range of commissioned news for numerous publications around the world. Andy is contracted to the Observer and the Guardian, but he has also published numerous times in newspapers and magazines like The Times magazine, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Independent, the Independent on Sunday and the New York Times Magazine. He has also been commissioned by Red Bulletin Magazine, Newsweek, GQ Magazine and Der Speigel Magazine. He publishes photo-essays with Ars Notoria.
Andy has collaborated in book projects ranging from Montreal – Eye on the Metropolis (2000), to the British press photography anthology – Eyewitness; five thousand days (2004), Muhammad Ali – the glory years (2002), as well as the book project UK at home (2008). His commissioned work on the ongoing hunger crisis in sub-saharan Africa was screened at Visa pour L’image, Perpignan in 2012.
Andy is also an established street photographer, having had his work published in specialist magazines such as PDN (Photo District News) and Eyeshot magazine. He is also one of the winners of the PDN sponsored Best of Street Photography 2016, and has given talks on his work in the Street London Festival in 2017 and on Radio London in 2018. He runs street photography workshops and judges street photography competitions on the Photocrowd photography website. Andy was recently awarded series finalist in the Brussels Street Photography Festival 2019. Andy was also a series finalist in the Lensculture Street Photography Awards 2021.