Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974

A new book and exhibition capture the private Muhammad Ali, as photographed by Peter Angelo Simon

In 1967, the boxer Muhammad Ali lost his world heavyweight title when he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War. Seven years later, after defeating rival Joe Frazier, Ali prepared travel to Kinshasa, Zaire, to regain his title from George Foreman. The fight, dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle, became one of the most significant of his career.

A month or so before, Ali had been in rather different surroundings: his rural training ground at Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, nicknamed Fighter’s Heaven. For two days, the photographer Peter Angelo Simon was invited to chronicle Ali’s training.

At this point, Ali was arguably the most famous sportsman in the world, bolstered by his athletic success, his high profile conversion to Islam and his dismissal of conscription. With his outspoken manner outside the ring and eccentric technique within, the press tracked his every public move. In Fighter’s Heaven, however, Simon stumbled on a very different side to the 32-year old man once known as Cassius Clay:

“I was astonished by what I discovered at Deer Lake. The camp had an air of playfulness and creativity – power boulders bearing the names of boxing greats of the past, magic tricks, tea and poetry, Ali relaxing in a rocking chair receiving visitors in a log cabin. While Ali prepared his body with rigorous physical training, the camp’s congenial atmosphere was clearly essential to the nourishment of his soul. Everything I saw at the camp, I felt, was part of Ali’s imaginative formula for success.”

Simon followed Ali as he drank tea, discussed poetry and visited an old peoples' home. The figure he found was intelligent and disciplined, far from the brash celebrity that the public knew.

An upcoming book, Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974, gathers together Simon’s photographs, the majority of which were previously unpublished. It is accompanied by an exhibition at Serena Morton Gallery in Ladbroke Grove.