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Ali's ally

Greatest friend? That's Bingham

NEWTON -- Most people think Howard Bingham didn't exist until he met Muhammad Ali. Most people are wrong.

To be the best friend of the world's most famous man is no easy task. To have that friendship not only survive 41 years but also grow and deepen might be a feat as remarkable as anything Ali has accomplished over the long years the two have been together.

There is a reason for the loyalty and love that entwines them, however, and it is not simply that the 61-year-old Bingham "never asks for anything." It is that there was a Bingham even before he met Cassius Clay April 20, 1963, at a press conference at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

The event was called to hype the 14th fight of Ali's career, a less-than-memorable one against a kid named George Logan set for three days later. Had Bingham not already been somebody himself, such a friendship very likely would have been swamped by the rising tide of Ali's fame. That it was not says something about Ali and more about Bingham, who was in Newton last week to talk about his latest project -- "GOAT -- A Tribute to Muhammad Ali," a remarkable book that will tip the scales at 75 pounds, making it a heavyweight tome.

GOAT (Greatest of All Time) is one of the more remarkable feats in publishing history and Bingham is proud to be a part of it, but he is just as proud of an exhibit of his work entitled "Howard L. Bingham: Photographer of Legends" now hanging at the Mount Ida College art gallery in Newton, where it will be until March 10.

When the two first met, Bingham was a young photographer for the Los Angeles Sentinel and soon after would begin a five-year relationship as a contract photographer for Life magazine, a job he describes simply as "riot photographer."

He was much more than that, but understatement laced with a wry smile is the essence of Howard Bingham. It is why he got such a kick out of it a few years back when the great sportswriter Frank Deford penned a lengthy article on him for Sports Illustrated. On the cover was a picture of Bingham and Ali. The headline read, "Who's That With Howard Bingham?"

Deford described him as a real-life Forrest Gump, a guy who seemed to be on the edge of everything. He's met about everyone you would want to meet (and a few people you wouldn't want to meet) and he's witnessed some of the biggest news and sports events of the past 40 years. Race riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and throughout the country. Observing and photographing the political rise and violent death of Dr. Martin Luther King, the campaign that ended in tears of Robert Kennedy, the freeing and triumph of Nelson Mandela, and, of course, all things Ali.

Relationship begins

Through all of Ali's fights, both legal and physical; through all his fears, fame and illness; through everything, Bingham was always watching Ali's back ever since they first got to know each other at the corner of 5th and Broadway in Los Angeles, not far from the Alexander Hotel, where Ali was staying for the Logan fight.

"My assignment was to photograph this big-mouth guy coming to town," Bingham recalled of the day that changed his life. "I hadn't heard of him. After the press conference I left to do some errands and I was driving downtown and I saw him and his brother on the corner. I thought they were waiting for a bus so I asked them if they wanted a ride. Ali said they were just looking at the girls. I told them I had some errands to run and then I'd show them around LA.

"I took them to a bowling alley in Compton. I took 'em to my mother's house to see my family. I picked them up the next day to give them a ride to training and we just became friends."

When Ali returned to LA to fight Alejandro Lavorante a few months later, they spent more time together and that was repeated when he came back to fight aged Archie Moore near the end of the year. On both trips Bingham drove Ali and trainer Angelo Dundee around town but refused their offers of money.

"I was having too much fun," Bingham recalled. "I didn't want to get paid. You don't get paid to help your friends."

Not long after that Ali invited Bingham to come to Miami to visit him on New Year's Day, 1963. He'd never flown before so Bingham was excited. When he soon found himself on the way to snowy Pittsburgh not long after his arrival to watch Ali fight Charley Powell, he was more than excited. He was mystified.

"I'd never been in cold weather before," said Bingham, Mississippi born and California raised. "They bought me some earmuffs and long underwear and a coat. Instead of staying a couple of weeks I stayed until March. I left just before the Doug Jones fight because I got a notice from my draft board."

More than 33 years later, when the United States Olympic Committee wanted Ali to be the secret hero who lit the flame at the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Bingham was among the first people contacted. After Ali began to have doubts about appearing, Bingham helped convince him of the magnitude of it all.

And as Ali stood alone at the top of the Olympic Stadium that night in 1996, his hand shaking as he reached to light the flame while the crowd held its breath, he really wasn't alone at all. There with him, on the floor in front of him, lay Howard Bingham, camera at the ready to capture this latest moment for Ali and for the world. Once again he had been a witness to history that few people but Ali noticed. A witness and a friend.

Incomparable project

To be sure, much has grown out of Bingham's relationship with Ali, including his key role in Ali's latest project, the book that will be released this spring by an international art publishing house called Taschen.

Like everything about Ali, it is outsized and remarkable. Limited to 10,000 individually numbered and signed copies, the book has 792 pages. It comes with its own exhibit stand and because it is obvious no one but the Governor of California could take it to bed to read, it is accompanied by nine small volumes in which each chapter is reprinted.

The book will be printed in two editions. The regular edition costs $3,000. The "Champs Edition," numbered 1 through 1,000, has a white silk cover, four gallery-quality silver gelatin prints signed by Ali and Bingham, and an original art piece to go with it. Those editions will cost $10,000 each. Neither edition is expected to be available for long.

Bingham's participation in this four-year effort was a key component in the project, which includes more than 3,000 photographs of Ali from more than 150 photographers. All are listed inside the book but only two, Bingham and Neil Leifer -- long of Sports Illustrated and Time -- are credited on a separate page for "principal photography." That Bingham's name sits above the more well-known Leifer, whose prickly personality is legendary among sporting journalists and athletes, amuses him no end.

"They say they couldn't have done this without me," Bingham said recently, his constant smile spreading across his bearded face. "I don't know about that but we're here. Who else could command a book like this but Ali? Who else could do a book like this and sell it?

"The books are being bound by the official bindery of the Vatican so I guess it's a holy book. It's so huge they can only do a few a week. It's a one-time printing. It's out of reach for most people because it's one of a kind. Like Ali."

There is a prototype of the book at Mount Ida and much of the work on exhibit is of Ali. Much, but not all. Hanging there as well are photographs from a project on poverty in the Mississippi Delta Bingham shot for Life 40 years ago. There are also some of the thousands of photos he has taken of politicians, entertainers, radical leaders such as H. Rap Brown and Eldridge Cleaver, and icons of peace and patience such as King and Mandela. They are all examples of a life's work that ranged well beyond his friendship with one man, even though he is quick to assert that his friendship with Ali is one of the most important things in his life.

"Ali is what most people know me for," Bingham said. "People are surprised to see other photos of other things. That amuses me. It really does.

"I worked for Life magazine for five years. The first Life magazine. They called me for photographs of the riots in Watts but I was in Sweden with Ali, who was fighting an exhibition with Jimmy Ellis. I missed that one but they called me not long after for more stuff. I shot it. The next week in Life was all my pictures. I was so proud.

"That's how I became a riot photographer. When the long hot summer of '67 came, they kept calling me. Wherever riots were, Bingham went. Detroit, Newark, Bakersfield, Calif. That year a riot broke out in Detroit and I boarded a plane with Gerald Moore, who was a fine writer. I shot all day and got to my room about midnight after catching a lot of hell from the cops because I was black. I heard some shooting so I got on the floor between the beds. I said right then, `No more.' "

But there was more, including the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago where, as Bingham recalled, "They were rough cops. Cops on horses pushing people right into the Hilton Hotel. That was a terrible experience. I was young and stupid but I knew when to say `No.' "

Almost 30 years later, Bingham was invited by Mandela to come to South Africa and travel with him during his campaign for president. By then, he had grown used to creature comforts, however, so Bingham had to weigh the loss of them against the opportunity to watch a man try to go from nearly 30 years in isolation on Robbins Island, a penal colony in the harbor off Cape Town run by the white apartheid regime he was about to defeat, to the presidency of his country. For one of the few times in his life, Bingham made a decision he regrets.

"I was a lot older than in 1968," Bingham explained. "I was worried about where I'd sleep the next night. I was past sleeping on somebody's floor. I wanted some comfort. I'm sorry now I didn't do it because he won."

Unwavering loyalty

Bingham has been with winners for much of his life, although most of them had to struggle mightily to seize their victory. None more so than Ali, whom he stuck with through exile, through his battles with the government and the Muslim power structure of Elijah and Herbert Muhammad, through boxing's often ugly politics, and through the upheavals caused by aging, illness, birth, death, and family breakups.

One constant throughout has been the loyalty of Howard Bingham. Perhaps no athlete in history has been as rudely treated by so many who claimed to be his friend as Ali, and it has often been difficult for those who know him to watch. Difficult, in particular, for the one guy who never wanted anything from him but a smile.

"I used to go to bed at night and cry the way people ripped him off," Bingham said. "If he asks me about something I tell him what I think. If he doesn't like it, that's his problem. If he doesn't ask, I still might speak my mind. It hurt me sometimes to see how he was treated. He was everyone's friend."

Most of all he's been the photographer's friend, although Bingham says those words should be reversed.

"I think we became friends because I didn't want nothing from him," said Bingham, who still regularly travels with Ali, sees him at least 100 days a year, and speaks with him daily. "I knew who I was. I knew how I grew up. We just became friends and we stayed friends.

"I'm blessed how things happened. I've been involved in a lot of history-making events because of Ali because I wasn't just his photographer. I was his friend. I just happened to be a photographer."

And a damn good one, as GOAT and his exhibit at Mount Ida both reestablish, in case anyone forgot.

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