REELING IN THE PUNCHES: Photographer captures boxing icon Muhammad Ali

By Brandon Scalea

Photographer Flip Schulke gained notoriety in the industry for his work during the Civil Rights Movement, for a famous shot of the Texas Book Depository moments after President John F. Kennedy was shot, and for a huge collection of Dr. Martin Luther King photos.

Schulke received an honorary doctorate degree from Rider in 2003, and as a result, donated 2,500 of his photographs to the University. In total, he took about 500,000 photographs — 9,500 of which have been digitally recorded for educational purposes.

Harry Naar, professor of fine arts and director of the art gallery, said Schulke’s contributions during his career were second to none.

“He was a very important photographer,” Naar said. “As far as talent, there was no one quite like him, especially in the days of the Civil Rights Movement. Schulke had a great ability to take photos of an event and really make you feel like you were there with him.”

Schulke’s work was first published in Life magazine in 1956, but he had never worked with an athlete until he met a feisty, 19-year-old boxer by the name of Cassius Clay. This young man would soon be known to the world and generations to come as Muhammad Ali — or simply, “the greatest.”

Ali passed away on June 3 at the age of 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

In 1961, Schulke spent five days in Miami with the legendary boxer. His photos from this time are all published in a book called Muhammad Ali: The Birth of a Legend, Miami, 1961-64 by Schulke and Matt Schudel. The book can be found in Moore Library.

During that span, the photographer drove alongside Ali on the highway as he went on his daily runs. He followed Ali into the gym and got a sense of his world-renowned personality.

Schulke also visited Ali’s simple home during those days, a rented room in the Alexander Apartments, located in the Overtown section of Miami, so-called for it being the predominately black section of the city over the railroad tracks. Schulke went into Ali’s room and first caught a glimpse of his gold medal won just a year prior at the Summer Olympics in Rome. He tried it on.

Perhaps Schulke’s most famous photos of the boxer were of Ali underwater, Schulke’s trademark. When he first told Ali that he specialized in underwater photography, a funny story ensued.

According to the book, Ali responded to him by saying he worked out in a pool every single day. The resistance of the water added unmatched strength to his arms and made him a lot quicker, he said.

Schulke returned a few days later with a scuba tank and all his underwater equipment and met Ali at a hotel. Ali climbed into the pool and went about his daily routine, or so Schulke thought.

At one point, after throwing punches, Ali famously sank to the bottom of the pool and stood in a defensive stance with his fists raised, as if he were in the ring instead of water.

Naar said taking photos underwater, especially of athletes, is a unique and creative approach.

“Schulke was really the only photographer I can think of that did this,” he said. “Looking at those photos, you get such a different perspective of Ali. Here’s such a powerful man, throwing punches and doing what he does. But he almost seems like a ballerina in these photos, not nearly a fighter.”

Schulke first contacted Sports Illustrated with his set of photos, but they thought he was crazy. Instead, Life published the underwater photos in September of that year. They chose, however, to not run the one of Ali at the bottom of the pool because they thought it was too staged. This was the first time Ali was featured in a national publication.

It was also the first time he ever worked out in a pool. He claimed that he couldn’t even swim and just wanted the publicity.

This story represents what made Ali an icon. As for Schulke, he passed away in 2008, but left a lasting legacy at Rider through his contributions.

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