Never before seen photos of The Champ Muhammad Ali in new Camden show

Muhammad Ali, Miami Beach, 1977. Picture: Michael Gaffney

Muhammad Ali, Miami Beach, 1977. Picture: Michael Gaffney - Credit: Archant

Muhammad Ali has never strayed too far from the spotlight, even in his retirement and worsening health. And most would say: rightly so.

Muhammad Ali, In the Corner, 1978. Picture: Michael Gaffney

Muhammad Ali, In the Corner, 1978. Picture: Michael Gaffney - Credit: Archant

Instantly recognisable, the Champ is generally regarded as one of the greatest sporting icons of the last century.

But recently, it seems not a day goes by without the legendary boxer’s name splashed across newspapers as more than 23,000 people call for him to be given an honorary knighthood.

His wife, Yolonda Ali, backed those calls earlier this month at the opening of the much-publicised exhibition, I Am The Greatest, at Greenwich’s O2, which features memorabilia from his glory days.

But on the other side of the capital, another exhibition opening today (Thursday) also pays homage to the boxing icon at Proud Camden gallery, in Camden Town.

Muhammad and Laila Ali, 1978. Picture: Michael Gaffney

Muhammad and Laila Ali, 1978. Picture: Michael Gaffney - Credit: Archant

Through a series of candid photographs taken over the course of one year between 1977 and 1978, the show, The Champ: My Year with Muhammad Ali, by Ali’s one-time personal photographer, Michael Gaffney, focuses on the man behind the label: ‘The Greatest’.

Many of the photographs have never been seen before.

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“This exhibition at Proud Camden is more of a personal view than the one at the O2,” he explains. “I was with him on a personal level, and I saw why he was so loved and it’s because he reaches out to people.

“He never pleased himself, he wanted to please everyone else. This really came from his respect for all people and his willingness to be a very strong and spiritual person.”

In total, Gaffney took more than 8,000 images: of Ali cradling his newborn daughter, Laila, in a moment of tranquillity; of him boxing in front of a mirror while training; of private moments of reflection after a win, or loss.

“I wanted to remain an observer, as a fly on the wall, so I would never be part of the story, just record it,” the 66-year-old says, speaking from his New Jersey home. Muhammad Ali was famous before I got there, but I knew that eventually, history would recognise his value and his importance.”

Before 1977, Gaffney was working as a news photographer, with a burning ambition to photograph Elvis Presley.

Unfortunately, he never got the chance before the king of rock and roll’s untimely death in 1977.

But the event sparked in Gaffney a determination not to let his goal to photograph an icon slip away again.

So when the opportunity arose to take pictures of Ali at his training camp in Deer Lake for the news agency where he worked, Gaffney snapped it up.

“After a few days there, I

went into his office, and said, ‘Champ, I’m leaving tomorrow, I’ve got to go back.’ And he said, ‘No, I want you to stay’” the award-winning snapper remembers.

“I called my wife Debbie and said, ‘Champ wants me to be his personal photographer. I’ll have to travel and go all over the world.’ I was just married at that time.

“She said we would need to think about it, but when I got home, she was just standing there, and looked at me, and said: ‘If you don’t do this, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.’

“The bittersweet part of that story is that Debbie passed away in 1999, she had breast cancer, so she never got to see any of this.”

Many of Gaffney’s photographs during that year between 1977 and 1978 went in newspapers and magazines all over the world, but thousands more never saw the light of day.

That is, until Gaffney put on a small exhibition in his hometown in 2009, which led to interest abroad and another show at Proud Chelsea in 2010.

Six years on, the father-of-three has produced a book containing his photographs, as well as transcripts from tape recordings he made during his year following Muhammad Ali all around the world.

“I wrote a quote about him for my book: ‘There is a quiet strength about Muhammad Ali and why he will always be known as The Greatest of All Time. The heart of a champion, the soul of a saint.’ People always ask me, what was he really like? But that quote to me sums it up. He had the heart of a champion, and he still has the heart of a champion, as much as when he was in the ring, now fighting this Parkinson’s Disease.” Gaffney hopes that the show will be a fitting tribute to the boxer, who sadly is now too unwell to see it for himself, and is backing the campaign to give his friend an honorary knighthood.

“Who would oppose this? He’s one of the most popular and respected people in the world. There’s no-one more deserving than him.”

Imogen Blake

The Champ: My Year with Muhammad Ali by Michael Gaffney at Proud Camden runs until May 15.