Muhammad Ali’s legendary professional boxing career spanned twenty years, from 1960 until 1980. December 1965 George Kalinsky followed sportscaster Howard Cosell into Muhammad Ali’s workout session at the 5th St. Gym in Miami. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, stopped Kalinsky at the door, telling the young man with a camera that he had to pay to enter. “But I’m the photographer at Madison Square Garden,” he said. It was a position he did not have…yet. Nevertheless, he gained entry to the gym and a week later, using the one roll of film he took of Ali in Miami, Kalinsky convinced personnel at Madison Square Garden to give him a shot as their official photographer, a position he still holds today.
The encounter in Miami launched a relationship between boxer and photographer that quickly bonded into a close friendship, one that lasted through the rest of Ali’s life.
Kalinsky spent days with Ali—at the Garden for his fights, at Ali’s Deer Lake training camp, and at other facilities where the boxer prepared for bouts. Sometimes they would just walk the streets of New York City together. Kalinsky once remarked that Ali always thought of himself as an entertainer, a salesman, and a fighter and the photographer recorded it all—in the ring and out of it. Kalinsky saw Ali win and he saw him lose. But he also saw the side of Muhammad Ali that the boxer wrote about in his memoir, The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey (2013). “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” Ali said many times in reference to his fighting. His stinging punch was, like a bee, fast and direct. But he also likened his soul to a butterfly—a wonder of nature with delicate beauty and grace.
Tributes poured in after Muhammad Ali died. Billy Crystal eulogized that Ali’s “intense light shined on America and we were able to see clearly: injustice inequality, poverty, pride, self-realization, courage, laughter, love, joy, and religious freedom for all.”
President Obama remarked that Ali had become a “powerful force for peace and reconciliation around the world….Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it.”
Ali was especially interested in the civil rights implications of the election between James Meredith and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. for a United States House of Representatives seat from the district of Harlem.