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Extraordinary work links two iconic sports figures on the day after Ali's first professional defeat

1971 LeRoy Neiman Original Watercolor Inscribed to the Artist by Muhammad Ali. Not since the second bout between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling had two fighters met in a Championship bout so thoroughly steeped in political context. But while Louis and Schmeling had represented freedom and totalitarianism respectively in their 1938 Yankee Stadium rematch, Ali and Frazier stood on opposing sides of the Vietnam War, the former returning to the ring after three and a half years of banishment from the sport for his refusal to enter the military draft. The contrasts did not end there, of course--Ali was brash, Frazier was quiet. Ali was quick, Frazier was powerful. Ali was seen as a standard bearer for the black race, whereas Frazier's white "Cloverleaf" ownership made him the frequent target of "Uncle Tom" epithets, most loudly from Ali himself.

Both, however, shared the distinction of an unblemished professional record, with fifty-seven combined wins, all but nine by knockout. And thus their long-awaited collision at New York City's Madison Square Garden was fittingly billed as "The Fight of the Century." Each boxer was guaranteed a record $2.5 million for this first of three joint engagements, and not even the great Frank Sinatra could score a ringside seat, instead working a camera for Life Magazine to earn his desired vantage point. Nearby, LeRoy Neiman sketched the battle as it raged.

Sports art's most celebrated practitioner had recently completed the watercolor presented here, a study of the iconic contender at rest and at war, as he worked at ringside. In the margins surrounding these twin images of the former Champ, Neiman had transcribed paragraphs of Ali's more memorable quotations, like, "I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator," and "I don't want to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be who I want." But perhaps most poignant is what clearly was a late addition, at the lower margin:

"In the Frazier fight I realize when you've been knocked down that you can be beat. It's good in a way. You learn through losin'. You get a chance to see how things look from the other side."

Perhaps this was a statement made to Neiman personally, at the time that Ali inscribed the work to the famed artist, penning at lower right, "To LeRoy Neiman from Muhammad Ali, Good Luck, March 9, 1971." Ali's ink, applied the day after his shocking defeat, rates 8/10.

Never before have we encountered a painting that so directly links the master and his muse, and the remarkable vintage only serves to heap still more intrigue and appeal upon the arresting masterwork. Short of a bit of fading to the first line of Neiman's handwritten text at the upper edge of the work, there are no condition issues to note, the 24x30" watercolor on paper presently flawlessly, and signed "LeRoy Neiman '71" in pencil at lower edge. The painting is professionally matted and framed to a museum-quality 42x47". Full LOA from PSA/DNA. Full LOA from James Spence Authentication. Third party shipping required. 1975 original bill of sale.


*A donation of $100 to the American Red Cross is required to attend the Live auction.

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Auction Dates
February, 2013
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