Closely related to his Athletes series produced a year earlier, Andy Warhol's Muhammad Ali portfolio combines the worlds of sport, celebrity and art in a four-part portrait of the greatest heavyweight boxer of the twentieth century. Having achieved fame and critical recognition for his silkscreen paintings of film stars during the 1960s, Warhol's portraits from the 1970s and 80s resonate with a wider cultural appetite for intellectual, political and, in this case, sporting icons. As Warhol himself put it, 'I said that the athletes were better than movie stars and I don't know what I'm talking about because athletes are the new movie stars'.
The polaroid photographs that form the basis of the artworks were taken at 'Fighter's Heaven', Ali's training camp in Pennsylvania. Unlike Warhol's earlier Athletes portrait of Ali in a defiant, combative pose with his fists raised, the present portfolio reveals a gentler, more contemplative side to the boxer, evoking Ali's intelligence and personality outside of the ring. Ali was then the third-time World Boxing Association Heavyweight Champion, though his fabled reputation was also driven by his political activism. When Ali was first shown a portrait of himself by Warhol, the boxer said: 'It is by far the best painting I have ever had of myself ... I can also see a softness and compassion, as a matter of fact, I can see many moods.'