From Muhammad Ali, the world has received lessons in poetry, charity, and how to lead with an explosive right. Ali's fights with George Foreman and Joe Frazier comprise some of the greatest chapters in boxing history. His story is illustrated in moments like the lighting of the Atlanta Olympic torch in 1996 and the infamous ABC studio brawl in 1974; however, he is also captured elegantly and provocatively on canvas in Henry Casselli's Cat's Cradle (above).
In Henry Casselli: Master of the American Watercolor, Donald Hoopes states that the cat's cradle of string "became the central motif of the Ali portrait, as the idea went through development from pencil study to . . . the final oil painting." The image is slightly paradoxical, as the massive Ali toys with the string. Hoopes adds, "On an obvious level, the cat's cradle suggests the ropes of the boxing ring. But the contrast between the delicate strings and Ali's powerful form prompts a more subtle reference to Ali's famous description of his boxing style, ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’"
Among Muhammad Ali's stunning victories was the "Rumble in the Jungle." On October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, against a heavily favored George Foreman, Ali began the fight by leading into Foreman with his right. He connected more than a dozen times—which sent a message to Foreman that Ali thought Foreman was too slow to counterpunch. Ali then fell back for a few rounds into the ropes (the famous “rope-a-dope”) and let Foreman tire himself with punches that fell onto a well-protected Ali. And although witnesses—among them writer George Plimpton—thought "the fix is in" when Ali went to the ropes so early, Ali's strategy served him well; Foreman was counted out in the eighth round.
In 1984, Ali told the world he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease; like the warrior he is, Ali has fought the illness for twenty-five years. In 2005 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the many honors given him that signify his greatness as an athlete, an American, and a person.
-Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery
Muhammad Ali / Henry C. Casselli, Jr. / Oil on canvas, 1981 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Sig Rogich Family Trust