Did you know there’s an art gallery inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal? Well, there’s a timely new exhibit on Muhammad Ali presented by the Donna Compton Gallery, timed with his birthday yesterday and Black History Month in February. It features 64 photographs from the book The Champ: My Year With Muhammad Ali by photographer Michael Gaffney who was the boxer’s personal photographer between 1977 and 1978. Gaffney took more than 8,000 photographs that year showing not only Ali the fighter but also him as a family man, philanthropist and thinker. In fact, Gaffney says that what Ali valued most was his alone time with his children.

Muhammad Ali Photography Exhibit-Port Authority Bus Terminal Gallery-Michael Gaffney-NYC-001.33 AMPhotograph by Michael Gaffney

Gaffney began as a newspaper photographer and his time with Ali came as “fateful thing” at 25 years old, he tells us. Gaffney was in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania on a freelance assignment taking pictures of Ali in his camp. He realized, “I’d follow this guy his whole career.” The clinching moment seems to have come when Gaffney was challenged by Ali “to run up his mountain. His words were ‘No man alive has run up my mountain.'” It was 5:30 in the morning. Halfway up, Gaffney was struggling but he says suddenly, “It was like words coming into me that were telling me, you can’t stop running. This is the heavyweight champion of the world lighting the way for you to run up his mountain and I kept going and I made it to the top.” When Gaffney was ready to head out a few days later, Ali asked him to work for him. His friend and personal photographer was running for Congress and Ali told Gaffney, “I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse,” a big phrase two years after the release of the Godfather, Gaffney jokes.

Muhammad Ali Photography Exhibit-Port Authority Bus Terminal Gallery-Michael Gaffney-NYC-001

Ali fought ten fights in New York City, more than any other location in the world. Gaffney recalls, “The press loved him. We used to have press conferences before fights. The New York audience was always the best audience because the news people here had been covering him for years. They knew him! And they always knew that it was going to be a loud, funny, good time with great quotes for the next day’s newspaper. And they always got it from Ali –Ali delivered, besides in the ring he was a publicity master.”

Muhammad Ali Photography Exhibit-Port Authority Bus Terminal Gallery-Michael Gaffney-NYC-001.22 AMPhotograph by Michael Gaffney

A few photographs show Ali in a polio hospital in Bogota, Colombia, where he visited every single child. Gaffney says that Ali “was ecumenical, before ‘ecumenical’ was even a catchphrase. But he loved everybody and really that explains why every body loved him. It was reciprocal with Ali. Ali put himself out there, stood up for purposes, stood up for all the right reasons to make cultural and social and equality of all races, all religions…he stood up for the principles, the values his whole life. And where did that come from? A lot of it was from his spiritual background. He’s a devout Muslim and he used to study the Quran all the time when I was with him, especially on planes. Believe it or not, he flew a million miles a year but he was scared to death to fly. He used to read his Quran to calm himself down. He prayed five times a day. To me, it was a revelation, discovering what the personal Ali was really like. He was quiet when the spotlight wasn’t on. But when the spotlight was on, this guy was dynamic.”

Muhammad Ali Photography Exhibit-Port Authority Bus Terminal Gallery-Michael Gaffney-NYC-001.16 AMPhotograph by Michael Gaffney.

It took Gaffney a year and a half to write the book The Champ: My Year With Muhammad Ali, following a prompt during a radio show in England. Gaffney fortunately had recorded many of his moments with Ali, which enabled him to transcribe them for the book. Gaffney also lived with Ali and his family in Chicago.

Muhammad Ali Photography Exhibit-Port Authority Bus Terminal Gallery-Michael Gaffney-NYC-001.26 AMPhotograph by Michael Gaffney

“What I’m trying to do now, “Gaffney says “is create an awareness of Muhammad Ali that is especially important now in our troubled world….The sanity and the ethical level that Muhammad brought to the world and his authentic feelings for people – he was called the People’s Champion because he really was. That’s part of the beauty of having this exhibition in the world’s busiest bus terminal is about.” Indeed, some of the photographs don’t show Ali at all, but how inspiring he was to the people around him.

Muhammad Ali Photography Exhibit-Port Authority Bus Terminal Gallery-Michael Gaffney-NYC-005Photograph by Michael Gaffney

The exhibit is framed by the three fights Gaffney covered with Ali that year. A tough win against Earnie Shavers, a surprising loss to Leon Spinks, and a glorious, redemptive comeback victory to win the Heavyweight Championship for the third time. The photographs however show Ali in all the different aspects of his life.

Muhammad Ali Photography Exhibit-Port Authority Bus Terminal Gallery-Michael Gaffney-NYC-004Photographer Michael Gaffney in front of the exhibit

The Muhammad Ali exhibit is located within the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 40th Street and 8th Avenue, near the 9th Avenue entrance just south of the main ticketing area. It will be up until February 26th.

Next, learn about the secrets of The New Yorker Hotel, where Muhammad Ali stayed after his 1971 fight to Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden.