Muhammad Ali’s global impact as an athlete, orator, and social activist made him a monumental pop culture icon. In August of 1977—after a lecture tour of thirteen European cities and before a tough fight against Earnie Shavers—Ali had a memorable encounter with another pop icon, Andy Warhol. While Warhol’s portraits of the Champ are well known, the details of this meeting between two American legends are worth revisiting.
Earlier that year, investment banker and avid sports fan Richard Weisman commissioned Warhol to paint portraits of ten famous athletes. Although Warhol knew very little about sports, he recognized that star athletes were effectively commodifying their images with movie deals and product endorsements, becoming international celebrities of the same caliber as the musicians, actors, and politicians that Warhol depicted in his emblematic Pop portraits. “I really got to love the athletes because they are the really big stars,” Warhol wrote in his 1979 book, Exposures. (Warhol 210) Along with Ali, Warhol painted some of the most prominent athletes of the twentieth century for this series, including Pelé, O.J. Simpson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
From March to November of 1977, Warhol travelled the country to meet these athletes and conduct Polaroid photoshoots. He was about halfway through the process when he visited Deerlake, Pennsylvania, to meet Ali at his training camp, “Fighter’s Heaven.” Warhol brought Richard Weisman, his business manager Fred Hughes, and the author Victor Bockris along with him. Bockris had been working for Warhol for less than a year, but he had interviewed Ali extensively, so he served as a mediator between the two unacquainted icons.
Ali told Bockris about his travels as Warhol shot several rolls of Polaroids of Ali’s profile while he was talking. Ali finally addressed Warhol and Hughes directly when he learned that the portraits would be sold for $25,000. “Man is more attractive than anything else! Look at me! White people gonna pay twenty-five thousand dollars for my picture! This little Negro from Kentucky couldn’t buy a fifteen hundred-dollar motorcycle a few years ago and now they pay twenty-five thousand dollars for my picture!” While everyone in the room appreciated Ali’s enthusiasm, Warhol had yet to get a decent photograph, so he worked up the courage to ask the heavyweight champion, “Could we do some where you’re not…er, talking?” (Warhol 212)
The room fell silent. Warhol later wrote that he thought Ali was about to punch him. But instead the Champ smiled, apologized, and struck a series of classic boxing poses. Once Warhol got the shots he needed, Ali showed Warhol and his team the mosque he’d recently built on the log cabin compound. He introduced Warhol to his wife Veronica Porché and their infant daughter Hana. Ali then brought Warhol and his team to another log cabin where he read a poem about the Concorde Jet:
I was flying the Concorde
at 60,000 feet
And the feeling you get is
It puts everything New York has
to a pity
So to keep it looking bad they
keep it out of the city.
The Americans should be protesting
to save the young boys
Instead of wasting time protesting
the Concorde’s noise.
The Concorde is the greatest thing
in the history of mankind.
When headed in the right direction
it outruns the sunshine.
The Americans left England years ago
in order to be free
So they should remember that the
people made the Concorde
Out of the roots of their tree. (Warhol 213)
Ali had been known for his poetry ever since he proclaimed, “Moore will go in four” about his fight with Archie Moore in 1962. But in 1967, after his boxing license had been suspended for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, Ali took to the lecture circuit and began delivering powerful speeches about race, religion, and humanity. After reciting his Concorde poem, Ali treated Warhol and his team to two such lectures, titled Friendship and The Real Cause of Man’s Distress:
“You’re a man of wisdom and you travel a lot, so you can pass on some of the things I say. See, I’m not gonna give you the kindergarten A B C thing.… I mean, I’m going to go into your head now. You might see me punch the bags, you might be white and we live in a world where black is usually played down. It’s not your fault. They made Jesus Christ like you a white man, they made the Lord something like you, they made all the angels in Heaven like you, Miss America, Tarzan king of the jungle is white, they made angel food cake white. You all been brainwashed, we been brainwashed like we’re nothing. You been brainwashed to think you’re wiser and better than everybody, it ain’t your fault. I’m just admit to that. I’m just a boxer, and a boxer is the last person to have wisdom, they’re usually brutes. I’m matching my brain with yours and showing you I’m not going to get on you, but I’m gonna make you feel like a kindergarten child. This black boxer here will make you feel like a kindergarten child. I can give you something more fresh, make you ashamed of your household. I got something here.” (Bockris)
Warhol and Bockris tape recorded the speech, eventually calling it an “interview” although Warhol asked no questions. Instead he sat motionless, with a vacant expression on his face, exercising a version of Ali’s “rope-a-dope” technique as Ali pounded Warhol with impassioned truths about the plight of the African diaspora. Warhol later described the speech this way:
“For forty-five minutes nonstop he raged on about prostitution on the steps of the White House, gravity, meteorites, jumping out of the window, Israel, Egypt, Zaire, South Africa, drugs, broken skulls, delusions, angel food cake, yellow hair, judgment day, Muslim morality, Jesus, boxing, Sweden, the Koran, friendship, and Elvis, relating it all to the central point that ‘man must obey the laws of God or perish!’” (Warhol 213)
Based on this description, it is safe to assume that Warhol did not readily agree with everything Ali said that day. Though Ali was a hero of black liberation, he held controversial views about segregation, interracial dating, feminism, and gay rights. Certain statements about homosexuality and eroticism in film may have bothered Warhol, since according to Bockris, he later commented on the chauvinism in Ali’s remarks. But he also told Bockris that it was “the perfect interview.” (Bockris)
Ali concluded his speech by explaining that he was boxing for the purpose of acquiring a media platform to spread his message, getting a microphone with which he can say “As-Salaam Alaykum” to billions of fans. He announced he was getting ready to “go out and be the black Billy Graham.” Warhol later addressed this declaration in Exposures:
“He could and he should. He’d make another fortune. He has the most beautiful voice, the most beautiful hands, and the most beautiful face. And he can use all three at the same time. That’s why people will listen to him.” (Warhol 213)
After this eventful visit to “Fighter’s Heaven,” Warhol continued to follow Ali’s career. He bit all the fingernails off one hand during Ali’s brutal loss to Larry Holmes in 1980, and he saved newspapers documenting Ali’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984. (Warhol, Hackett 331) The Warhol’s archivists found boxing paraphernalia in Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, including a pair of purple Everlast boxing trunks. Warhol also saved materials pertaining to other intersections between boxing and the art world, such as invitations to exhibitions featuring paintings of boxers by Steven Molasky and LeRoy Neiman and a press release for a boxing match between the performance artists Tom Chapman and Tony Labat. Warhol himself collaborated with Jean Michel Basquiat on a series of paintings on punching bags in 1986.
Less is known about what impact meeting Warhol had on Ali, but it is clear that Ali recognized Warhol’s influential role in American culture. Ali knew it was his celebrity and athleticism that drew Warhol to his camp, but he made a point to expose Warhol to his radical activism. This drive is what made Ali a hero outside of the boxing ring and made him a legend worthy of Warhol’s oeuvre.
Bockris, Victor. “The Perfect Interview: The Ali-Warhol Tapes.” Gadfly Online. Gadfly, Apr. 1999. Web. 09 June 2016. <http://www.gadflyonline.com/home/archive/April99/archive-aliwarhol.html>.
Warhol, Andy, and Bob Colacello. “Muhammad Ali.” Andy Warhol’s Exposures. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1979. 210-13. Print.
Warhol, Andy and Pat Hackett. The Andy Warhol Diaries. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009.