Ali: Photos by Thomas Hoepker Opening Night

There are two ways to really get to know Muhammad Ali’s fists. The first is to have suffered a brutal beatdown by "The Champ." The other way is to look at one of Thomas Hoepker’s iconic photographs.

Hundreds of people made the right choice last night and fought their way into Milk Gallery, where photos of Ali stared down at the mere mortals from every wall — proving that the greatest boxer who ever lived can dominate a room like few other men, even when he’s not actually there.

The collection comes from a 1966 assignment from Stern magazine, which placed Hoepker into Ali’s entourage as he travelled through London, Chicago and back to his home town of Louisville, Kentucky. Although Hoepker was with Ali for only a handful of days at a time, the breadth of photos makes it seem as if the two travelled together for months or years. There’s Ali in Chicago, playing with droves of children like a giant pied piper. And then there’s Ali raising his hands in triumph over the fallen British heavyweight champion Brian London. And then there’s Ali flirting with the baker’s daughter who would later become his second wife.

To celebrate Ali’s legacy, Milk Gallery teamed up with online auction house Paddle8 to launch a complementary auction to the exhibit, with proceeds from a special Hoepker print and a percentage of sales of other works to support the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center.

The photo collection by itself would be enough to immortalize the boxer, but the full depth of Ali’s unique brand of bravado and wisdom only comes through in full when paired with quotes recorded by Hoepker and his then-wife, the reporter Eva Windmöller. In one photo, Ali, dripping sweat as his gloves dance in front of him, stares down a punching bag as if it had just insulted his mother. Over the photo reads a capsule of his philosophy: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

As well as that line defines Ali, there’s another that might be a more perfect representation of the inimitable man: “Maybe I was great in the ring, but outside of boxing I’m just a brother like other people. I want to live a good life, serve God, help everybody. And one more thing. I’m still gonna find out who stole my bike when I was 12 years old in Louisville and I’m gonna whup him. That was a good bike.”

Photos by Drew Levin and Zlatko Batistich

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