As Muhammad Ali turns 70, Scottish photographer Harry Benson recalls a sporting legend

Sting like a bee: Ali (then Clay) in the gym in 1965. Below: Ali and Liston in Miami. Pictures: Harry Benson/Express/Getty
Sting like a bee: Ali (then Clay) in the gym in 1965. Below: Ali and Liston in Miami. Pictures: Harry Benson/Express/Getty
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Celebrity snapper Harry Benson has witnessed the boxer’s decline from a titan to a frail old man but for him, as for so many others, the former champion will always be The Greatest

This is the story of a fighter and a snapper, an icon of the 20th century and a man whose photographs helped capture the icon’s greatness for posterity. In one corner is Muhammad Ali, whose life and times will be celebrated anew on Tuesday at a regal bash in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky to mark his 70th birthday; in the other corner is Harry Benson, the Glaswegian who made it good in America, the 82-year-old whose association with Ali goes back to a February day in a gym in Miami in 1964 when Ali wasn’t even Ali at all, but Cassius Marcellus Clay, and whose relationship with The Greatest and The Prettiest of All Times began when he brought The Beatles to meet him at the Fifth Street Gym the week before Clay beat Sonny Liston and shook up the world.

Ali and Harry met in all sorts of places: at 7am in Ali’s bedroom in Lewiston, Maine, the morning after the boxer had beaten Liston for a second time; in Ali’s training camp at Deer Lake in Pennsylvania more times than Benson can remember; in the build-up and in the aftermath of Ali’s fights with Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers and others; in Iraq when Ali went to visit Saddam Hussein in 1990 to plead for the (successful) release of US hostages; at the White House when last he met him. That was in 2000. “I could see the deterioration in him in Iraq, not to mind at the White House,” says Benson. “Will Smith, the actor, was at that party, too. He said he was playing Ali in a film. It was a pretty ordinary film as it turned out. Will Smith wasn’t anywhere near as charismatic or as good-looking as Ali. But, then again, who was?”

Records show that it was at 6.35pm on January 17, 1942 that Odessa Clay gave birth to a boy at Louisville General Hospital. She called him Cassius, but mostly she called him GG. The baby jabbered, you see. Never stopped. For some reason, it was “gee gee, gee gee” all day long. Neither Odessa nor her husband, Cassius Clay Snr, had any idea what the kid was trying to say until he won the first of his six boxing titles years later and then turned around to his parents with that million-dollar smile of his and said: “You know what that meant, don’t you? I was trying to say Golden Gloves!”

If today follows the pattern of most other days, Ali will get out of bed at his home in a gated community near Phoenix, take a shower and then settle into his favourite chair to watch a movie. At some point his doctor will arrive and check him out. Ali will talk in whispers, his voice all but gone, but his mind and his wit and his memory still strong, his eyes seemingly burning almost as brightly as they did many years ago, when Benson was marvelling at him through a lens.

They have to monitor Ali closely these days, now more than ever. He has suffered from Parkinson’s disease for nearly 30 years but his susceptibility to things that could kill him has never been higher than right now. Pneumonia is his number-one enemy.

Benson talks of the rumours that swept his world late last year, rumours that continue to fly about even though, mercifully, the worst of them don’t appear to be true. “I heard very recently that he was gravely ill,” said Benson. “And I mean, gravely.”

In November, Ali went to Philadelphia for the funeral of his greatest foe, Frazier, and was then rushed to hospital a few days after his return. That’s when word spread that he was in trouble, that he might not survive. But Ali prevails. His people said that dehydration brought on the scare, that he’s doing OK, that he’s looking forward to celebrating his birthday.

It’ll be a night for memories and Benson has plenty. “I always loved being around boxers,” he said. “Maybe that was the Glasgow in me, I don’t know. But one of my very best friends in Scotland was Peter Keenan, the late fighter. Of all the subjects I’ve photographed [the Kennedys, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Greta Garbo and everybody who was anybody since the mid-1960s] I’d say I was only ever in awe of three – The Beatles, Muhammad Ali and Keenan. I loved the man.

“I’ll tell you a story about Keenan. I’m up in the Locarno Ballroom on Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night many, many years ago and I’m with a girl, OK? And a couple of Glasgow neds walk in and sit down beside me and I know they’re bad news. You just know you’re in danger and if I could have made a wish at that second it would be that my great friend Keenan, the bantamweight champion of Europe, would arrive to help me. Lo and behold, he just appears in front of me. Honest to God. He comes over and says, ‘Harry, are these two monkeys bothering you?’ And before I could open my mouth he banged their heads together and knocked them out and then sat down and talked to me for a few minutes as if nothing had happened. So I had a great admiration for boxers from early on.”

It was in 1964 that Benson first met Ali. Benson was a Daily Express man, then. A photographer with a well-deserved reputation for being in the right place at the right time. Luck, he says, played a part in it. “All I ever wanted to do was stay on the payroll, take as many photographs as I could and then get out of Dodge.”

When the Express told him he was to go with The Beatles on their first tour to America in the spring of ’64 he didn’t want to do it. His boss insisted. And that’s when he met Ali. “I’m staying with The Beatles at the Deauville Hotel in Miami, and I turn the TV on and I hear this guy shouting about how great and how beautiful he is and it was Cassius Clay, as he was then, and he was getting ready to fight Liston in Miami and I thought this was a good idea because The Beatles were looking for something to do, so I came up with the idea of taking The Beatles to him.

“I go and see Clay and he said ‘no problem’. Then I talk to the boys and John Lennon says, ‘I know this guy, I’ve been watching him, he’s a bigmouth and he’s gonna get beaten. We wanna be with the champion, not Clay’. So I go to Liston and he was starting his training for the day and he didn’t even lift his head up to look at me. He said: ‘I don’t want to see those bums’. Sonny wasn’t a bad guy actually. I go back to The Beatles and they still think they’re going to see Liston. I take them to the Fifth Street Gym and, of course, when they were in the door they couldn’t turn back because Clay wouldn’t let them. I set up this picture of Clay hitting them and the four of them toppling over and it became a very famous picture because you had two of the great icons of the 1960s in the same shot.

“The whole thing lasted about 20 minutes and Clay had them doing all sorts of daft things. There was only one man controlling it and that was Clay. That was the first time I’d seen them – and I’d been with them constantly for a month at that stage – doing what they were told. That’s why Lennon was pissed off. That didn’t happen to them. He said it was all my fault. And it was. Nobody made The Beatles look silly. They were always in charge. They wouldn’t talk to me for a month.”

At the Convention Hall at Miami Beach on 25 February, Benson was posted ringside, right alongside Liston’s corner. Nobody on earth, save for Clay, thought that Sonny could be beaten. “I could hear what his seconds were saying to Liston. When he came back in the corner after the sixth round Sonny was starting to show cuts and bruises, then he started shaking his head to say he wasn’t going to come out for the seventh round and I’m hearing the conversation. They were saying, ‘You gotta go Sonny, you gonna be a bum all your life’. I’m looking at Clay’s corner and Clay caught on that Sonny wasn’t going to come out and he’s up off his stool and starts to dance like he’s the new champion. And Liston wouldn’t move. The towel came in. And they were pissed off. They took him to a hospital and I’ve got the pictures of it. A hospital in Miami. They took him into a room in the back and I was outside the building taking pictures through the venetian blinds.

“People were shouting at him. They were saying, ‘We can’t see anything wrong with you, Liston. You could have fought on’. They were boxing officials. I think they withheld his purse. I’m sure there was a Mafia guy in there as well. Sonny was mixed up with all sorts of people. Everything I say, I’m really talking through my photographs.

“I think the fight was questionable. I thought the second one was questionable as well. I was at that one, too, in Lewiston Maine. Ali’s Phantom Punch. The fight started and suddenly Sonny is lying on his back. Things went crazy that night. The thing about Ali, he was like The Beatles in that you didn’t leave him without getting a good picture. He did your job for you. He understood why you came all this way to see him. I really liked him. The morning after the second Liston fight he let me in his bedroom at 7am. I took a chance and phoned him up. He shouted something like, ‘Oh no! It’s Sonny Liston’. I told him I’d come a long way to cover his fight and could I come and photograph him getting up in the morning and he said come on up. He was like that. He answered the door in his shorts and I took pictures for an hour. We chatted about the night before and by 8am I had my work done for the day. You had to love him.”

They met many times and Benson took many photographs, some never seen in public, some never even seen by the man who took them. So many years, so much film. “I was in Iraq in 1990, covering the build-up to the Gulf War and Ali arrived. The city was more or less deserted from what we could see, but then Ali would stop somewhere in the street that would be selling Turkish coffee or something and suddenly a crowd would appear out of nowhere. They just wanted to touch him, you know. Incredible. He had an audience with Saddam and wanted me to go with him, but Saddam didn’t want me there so that was the end of that. I saw him ten years later at the White House and it was sad. Very sad. What a courageous man, though. Extraordinary. The Greatest, for sure. Oh, he could boast, but he was right! I hope he has a great birthday.”

Seventy years old on Tuesday. As The Greatest once said in a heavily poignant moment: “Time flies. Flies. Flies.” He moved his fingers like they were a butterfly. “It just flies away,” he said.