Michael Gaffney with Muhammad Ali at Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, 1977
I was a young news photographer in August 1977 when I loaded my Nikons into my Volkswagen and drove to Deer Lake, Pennsylvania to freelance photos of Muhammad Ali. He was the most famous, recognized person in the world and the greatest boxer in history, so I didn't know if I'd even get into the camp. I had my NYC press credentials around my neck and Gene Kilroy, Ali's business manager, brought me in to meet the Champ who was resting up in his locker room. Champ asked me my name and where I was from. I told him, "Mike Gaffney from Gamma Liaison International Photo Agency." Ali smiled and said, "Shoot all you want Mike." He was a rare subject in front of the camera, natural and free and loved being the most photographed person in the world. We were driving back after a pre-dawn training run around Deer Lake, when Champ said, "No man alive has run up my mountain." The camp sat at the top of a steep mountain almost a mile long. When he repeated the challenge again, I knew he must be talking to me because I was the only one in running clothes. So I told Bundini who was driving to stop the car. I got about halfway up the mountain and was exhausted but then realized the Heavyweight Champ of the World Muhammad Ali is lighting the way for me to run up his mountain and I had to keep going. Ali was the first one out of the car, "You're the only man alive to run up my mountain!"
A few days later, I went into Ali's office to tell him I was leaving to get back to my wife and job on the newspaper. Ali said, "No you can't leave, I want you to work for me." I said, "Champ what are you talking about, you have Howard, what do you need two photographers for?" Howard Bingham was Ali's best friend and lifelong personal photographer. Ali said, "Howard's running for Congress in LA and I need a photographer so my kids and family don't get bothered." I told him I needed to talk to my wife Debby and Ali said, "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse," in his best Marlon Brando voice. When I got back to Debby, she gave me her blessing, "This is an opportunity of a lifetime, if you don't go you'll regret it for the rest of your life." She was right, I traveled around the world, covered three fights and made 8,000 photographs of the Champ. It was the special access that the Champ gave me into his personal life that carried with it a responsibility for photojournalism to document Muhammad Ali that would stand the test of time and tell my story that became "The Champ-My Year With Muhammad Ali." Many of the photographs in the collection are also in the book.
So what began as a freelance photo assignment became a yearlong dream assignment as Muhammad Ali's personal photographer and memories for a lifetime. Imagine, Muhammad's daughter Hana was a two year old in the book and in the meantime grew up to write a beautiful tribute to her father in the foreword of "The Champ." It meant the world to me from the Ali family when Muhammad's wife Lonnie told me, "These are some of the most beautiful photographs of Muhammad ever made." These are the gifts to share with you of this extraordinary treasure, "The Greatest"...Muhammad Ali.
Live and Love,
While I was a sophomore at the University of Dayton, Ohio, my brother, who was serving in Vietnam sent me a gift that changed my life...a Yashica Mat-124 twin lens reflex camera. I began to understand that my love for photojournalism began when growing up, I would run home from grammar school every Friday and study the pictures in the great LIFE magazine. I revered the work of Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Walker Evans, David Duncan Douglas, Larry Burrows, Catherine Leroy and the photojournalists who could tell the story with their images. It was W. Eugene Smith's powerful photojournalism work on the Japanese chemical tragedy in Minamata that showed me the importance of documentary work.
It was five years of shooting daily assignments for a New Jersey newspaper where I learned how to see, how to make something out of nothing and how to get close enough to get something good. The opportunity to make photographs of Muhammad Ali was both a gift and a responsibility. The historic value in documenting Muhammad Ali was to tell the story with images that would stand the test of time.
Michael Gaffney's photographs of Muhammad Ali have been published worldwide in magazines, books, films. museums and gallery exhibitions. Gaffney ran a corporate location photography business in New Jersey for 35 years. He has three children, Ian, Cara and Patrick and so far three grandchildren! Michael is married to Joanna and lives in New Jersey and Sunriver, Oregon.
What was Muhammad Ali really like? Award winning photojournalist Michael Gaffney captures a rare insider's view of 100 photographs and intimate stories of Ali's world, as his personal photographer in 1977-1978. THE CHAMP is a journey with one of the most extraordinary treasures in our lifetime - Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. These moving stories of the legendary fighter- poignant, hilarious and authentic - are a loving tribute to Muhammad Ali that reveal a true courageous heart and go far beyond his glories in the ring. THE CHAMP is a perfect storytelling trilogy in the fighter's career: a tough win against Earnie Shavers, a shocking loss of the World Heavyweight Championship to Leon Spinks, and a glorious redemptive comeback victory against Spinks to win the title for an unprecedented third time. THE CHAMP sustains the legacy of Muhammad Ali who continues to inspire millions and make the world a better place. "Congratulations to you, Michael Gaffney. THE CHAMP is one helluva achievement and one helluva book." BERT RANDOLPH SUGAR, Hall of Fame Boxing Historian
Copyright © 2018 Michael Gaffney Collection of Muhammad Ali - All Rights Reserved. All copying of images is strictly forbidden with full copyright protection and prosecution of the Copyright Act of 1978 for any and all violations in compliance with The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
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