Massive oil on board almost certainly created to promote "The Fight of the Century."1971 Muhammad Ali Original Artwork by LeRoy Neiman--Eight feet tall! One was the greatest Heavyweight Champion ever to step through the ring ropes. The other was the most famous artist in America, and unquestionably the most revered painter in the history of sports art. Each was an unrepentant iconoclast, groundbreaking, unparalleled in his chosen field of endeavor, a great American success story serving as inspiration to millions. Together they created some of the most enduring images in our shared aesthetic history.
One really needs to stand beneath the towering mass of this remarkable work to experience its full power, Muhammad Ali quite literally larger than life, arms raised in a heroic pose, his form emerging from vivid firework bursts of color that exemplify Neiman's patented brand of impressionism. So arresting is the image, so commanding of its space, that it would only be properly served by display on a huge and otherwise empty wall, free of any distractions. This is unquestionably the ultimate sports art status symbol.
The stunning work entered our Heritage offices very late in the consignment process, and just days before the artist passed away on June 20th, leaving us without adequate time to track down the history of the piece. Of course Neiman's artwork adorned the cover of the program for Ali/Frazier I, and it's quite simple to spot his famous mustache in photography of the bout snapped at ringside as well. The exhibition of this remarkable work at our corporate booth on the floor of the National Sports Collectors Convention will be a fitting memorial to the esteemed artist, and we expect that the thousands who will file past it will be stopped in their tracks in amazement.
Forty-one years ago, we imagine, the reaction was much the same. The 1971 dating of the piece at lower right, paired with the enormous proportions, leaves little doubt that the image was commissioned for display prior to the "Fight of the Century," the storied first bout between Muhammad Ali and "Smokin' Joe" Frazier. The reemergence of the former Champ after the stripping of his title and four years of banishment from boxing for his refusal to enter the Vietnam War draft was the biggest story in sports, the Madison Square Garden contest his opportunity to reclaim the belt that was rightfully his. The raised-gloves pose also points to creation prior to the March 8th meeting of undefeated fighters, as it was Ali who would see his unblemished streak of professional victories come to an end that evening.
Regardless of its original venue of exhibition, whether the concourse of Madison Square Garden, the lobby of a Manhattan skyscraper, or simply Neiman's own studio, the subject, artist, dimensions and vintage of this true masterpiece stakes a powerful claim for the title of most significant work of sports art ever made available for public sale.
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