Artwork: LeRoy Neiman, LeRoy Neiman Ali and the California Gang at the 5th Street Gym, Miami, February 27, 1971. Mixed media on paper. Courtesy LeRoy Neiman Foundation
Muhammad Ali and LeRoy Neiman were a match made in heaven. When the two met here on earth, they changed the art of boxing forever. A new exhibition, Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing, currently on view at the New-York Historical Society now through March 26, 2017, celebrates their winning combination.
LeRoy Neiman (1921–2012) began working as an illustrator for Playboy in 1954, just a year after the magazine launched, becoming a seminal contributor that gave the publication its look and feel outside of the seductive photographs. Neiman’s style, which could best be described as American Impressionism, was bold, rugged, and captivating, keeping painting and drawing fresh at a time when photography was replacing illustration in the print media.
Neiman regularly covered athletic events, and in 1964, he found himself at the World Heavyweight Championship between Sonny Liston, the title-holder, and Cassius Claw, the No. 1 Contender. In his seminal volume, LeRoy Neiman Sketchbook (powerHouse Books), Neiman writes, “The two black American prizefighters were about to play out their parts as only the times could have scripted them, a good guy and a bad guy. Only who was who?”
One year later, the three reconvened for the rematch, but by this time Clay had become Muhammad Ali, an openly devout Muslim. This fight was even more heated than the first, as Ali’s popularity with white America had turned south given his strong political rhetoric. In the Sketchbook Neiman reminds us that Ali was openly vilified and disrespected, writing, “In no time, Muhammad Ali became the new whipping boy of the press. Much of the news media, including The New York Times, stubbornly continued to refer to him by his given name.”
Then the fight happened. Two minutes and twelve second in, Liston was on the ground, knocked out. It was a wrap, but the crowd, enraged by Ali’s dominance, made up a story about a “Phantom Punch Fight,” showing alternative facts were already in use. While they yelled “Fix!” and sullied Ali’s name and prowess, Neiman continued to do what he did best—he created art history.
Now, a selection of those historical works along with artifacts can be seen in Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing. The exhibition includes works from the Sketchbook, as well as works made during the “Thrila in Manilla” and works made by Ali himself. Theirs was a relationship that went far beyond the training camps and inside the ring—it went into their homes and their families, where they shared friendship and camaraderie.
The exhibition reminds us that Ali was not treated as a champion or a hero throughout much of his lifetime. He suffered the slings and arrows of those who were threatened by his strength, power, and greatness. Yet he persevered through trial and tribulation, including the loss of his title and jail time for refusing to serve in the army and fight in Vietnam. Ali took his fight all the way to the Supreme Court, and once again he was redeemed.
For all the images of Ali that exist, Neiman’s are unlike any other for he brought the hand of the artist to tell the story of a man who would not be defeated. There is something beautiful, even enrapturing, about looking at Ali through Neiman’s eyes, feeling the surging energy and emotion in his sketches and words. This is “The Art of Boxing” in its ultimate form, the raw spray of paint matching the spray of blood and sweat flying through the air. Neiman’s work is so sensual you can almost hear the roar of the crowds.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.