Guardian Article

Observer picture archive: Muhammad Ali in Miami, 7 March 1971

Photographer Chris Smith and writer Hugh McIlvanney joined The Greatest at his Miami training camp before the Fight of the Century: Ali vs Frazier at Madison Square Garden.

This is an edited extract from an article, Superman at Bay by Hugh McIlvanney, published in the Observer Review on 7 March 1971.

The truth is that [Muhammad Ali] has done a fair amount of fooling around, haranguing the paying spectators at his work-outs, eulogising himself and dismissing Frazier as a second-rate street-fighter, a short-armed hooker who will never get past his jab.


But mainly in these moments he gives the impression of remembering a part he played in another show. One striking exception was the day he took Burt Lancaster, who has connections with the promoters, on a Pied Piper’s tour of the black ghetto area of central Miami. As Ali leapt from his Cadillac, five years fell away and he was the compelling, hysterically ebullient champion who had led me noisily through the same district three weeks before his title fight with Henry Cooper.

“I bring the greatest movie stars in the world to see y’all,” he shouted, thrusting the nervous actor out of the afternoon glare into the dark interior of a bus. As he strode past Moon’s Recreation Hall and the barber shops and drug stores, the crowd around him swelled and Lancaster was not the only member of the tiny white minority who was uneasy. An undercurrent of violence eddied through those who closed on all sides. Two or three of them challenged Ali to spar, and a tall, wild-looking man in an Apache wig who called himself Nicodemus went at the boxer with dangerous briskness. Ali was their hero, but too many of them wanted to acquire glory by the laying on of hands.

Ali with chauffeur and bodyguard, Reggie Thomas.
Ali with chauffeur and bodyguard, Reggie Thomas. Photograph: Chris Smith/The Observer

Some of us were given a lift back from the ghetto by Smokey the Bear, a large black wrestler who had attached himself to the camp. He agreed that the situation had been delicate for a few minutes. “But Reggie would have taken care of it,” he said. Reggie Thomas is a Muslim agent from Chicago who acts as chauffeur and bodyguard to Ali these days. He favours single colours, white or blue, from his flat cap to his pull-on boots. He is small and light-skinned, with the excessively composed features and mobile eyes of the professional bodyguard. Joe Frazier said last week he would never fight in an alley unless he “was dressed”. He did not have to draw diagrams. Reggie is almost certainly dressed.