Proud to the end, the boxing legend, 74, stares defiantly into the camera lens just two months ago.
Ali, weary f-rom 32 years battling Parkinson’s disease, was unrecognisable f-rom his heyday.
British photographer Zenon Texeira said “I felt his aura” during their time together.
Ali poses with his fists raised one last time in a haunting final photoshoot.
The pictures show The Greatest still refusing to give in to Parkinson’s disease.
He even manages the unmistakeable hint of a playful smile in what was to be his last ever series of official portraits.
The champion. Picture: Zenon TexeiraSource:Supplied
Ali, 74, was so frail he had to be helped into a chair in Phoenix, Arizona.
Texeira, who was invited into Ali’s home, has now told how the three-time heavyweight boxing champ had lost none of his fighting spirit.
“I knew I was in the presence of greatness,” he told The Sun.
His historic pictures showing a fragile but defiant Ali just weeks before his death have never been published before.
Zenon has told how the legend’s family gave their blessing to him being photographed.
Despite his crippling condition, father-of-nine Ali, famed not only as boxing’s greatest hero but also as a crusader for civil rights, was “in good spirits”.
Dignified. Picture: Zenon TexeiraSource:Supplied
Zenon said: “It was an absolute pleasure and privilege to photograph one of the biggest icons this planet has ever seen.
“Muhammad was a delight to photograph.
“I feel blessed to have met my all-time sporting hero.
“To capture his majesty with such intimacy fulfils a dream.”
He admitted he was racked with nerves while “photographing the most photographed icon of all time”.
He’ll never be forgotten. Picture: Zenon TexeiraSource:Supplied
“It is the proudest moment for me,” he said.
“Muhammad Ali means a lot to so many people all over the world.
“His legacy will never be forgotten.
“These unique portraits add to the giant tapestry of imagery that recorded the Champ’s life.”
Zenon was unsure when he travelled to the US whether Ali would be well enough to be photographed at all.
He was only too aware that the fight king’s 32-year battle with Parkinson’s had left him a shell of his former self.
Pure class. Picture: Zenon TexeiraSource:Supplied
Recalling how the photos came about, the Brit said: “It’s Friday evening and I’m in the office trying to justify the gamble of catching an early morning flight to Phoenix, Arizona, to capture the portrait of the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali.
“He’s 74-years-old and fragile but willing to be photographed in Phoenix.
“Arriving there on Saturday evening gave me a chance to Google the Champ and refresh myself on his life in and out of the ring.
“I go to sleep past midnight knowing I’ll have time to prepare before our scheduled 2pm shoot.
“I can’t sleep and I’m in bed, laptop by my side with a muted TV screen lighting up the room.
“Now and then my laptop pings with the arrival of a message.
“An email arrives and requests my attendance at 2pm that afternoon.”
Zenon told how in his eyes the boxer looked “as pretty as ever”.
Never bowed. Picture: Zenon TexeiraSource:Supplied
“The Champ was feeling well and rested, dressed in a dark shirt as I requested,” he said.
“This has me punching the air and gets the adrenaline going.
“I don’t envisage having much time and set up a makeshift studio.
“Twenty minutes later our hero arrives.
“His skin glistens and he is meticulously groomed with cool dark sunglasses hiding his eyes.
“He is helped into an armchair and it’s clear to see how fragile this man has become.
“However, I am told that even though he may not respond he understands every word.
“I do what I have to do and 45 minutes later wrap the shoot, over the moon with what I have captured.
“I hold his hand, thank him, tell him that I’ll pray for him and kiss his forehead as I say goodbye.”
Ali died on Saturday (AEST) just hours after he was rushed to hospital f-rom his home.
He had been found barely breathing.
The other iconic Ali image.Source:AP
Family sources said the superstar had been “extremely unwell” for weeks.
The cause of death was septic shock.
Daughter Hana Ali said: “All of his organs failed but his heart wouldn’t stop beating.
“For 30 minutes his heart just kept beating.”
She said: “Our hearts are literally hurting but we are so happy daddy is free now.”
The only other pictures taken of Ali just before his death are believed to be when he was snapped next to US singer-songwriter Carrie Underwood at a c-harity Celebrity Fight Night.
It was held at a hotel near his home with cash raised going to his Parkinson’s c-harity.
Ali, who was born Cassius Clay but changed his name when he converted to Islam, had insisted dying held no fears for him.
A friend said: “Muhammad had continued to say he was not afraid of death.”
Ali’s body has arrived in his hometown Louisville, Kentucky, whe-re a public procession and memorial service will be held on Saturday morning (AEST).
Forever the champ. Picture: Zenon TexeiraSource:Supplied
“Ali is now home,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer on his Twitter account.
Family and close friends will bid farewell at private ceremony on Friday (AEST) in Louisville, explained family spokesman Bob Gunnel at a press conference.
A day later a procession bearing the body of the triple world boxing champion will be marched through the streets of Louisville, first around the museum and cultural centre of Muhammad Ali and later through the boulevard that bears his name and then to the Cave Hill cemetery.
The burial ceremony will be private with the sole participation of his family, former US President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal and journalist Bryant Gumbel, a family spokesman detailed.
Louisville Mayor ordered that American flags be flown at half-mast at all government buildings in the city until Ali is buried.
The people’s champion.Source:Supplied
The importance of Muhammad Ali goes beyond boxing and embeds itself in the turbulent times in the 1960s, during the African-American Civil Rights Movement, when the boxer refused military service in Vietnam and called for the equality of all people regardless of religion, social status and skin colour.
Ali converted to Islam and was a member of the religious organisation the Nation of Islam, like Malcolm X, symbol of the most radical civil rights movement in the 60s.
According to Ali’s beliefs, his burial will be led by an imam and conducted under Muslim rites, although members of other religions will participate.
This story originally appeared in The Sun.
— with AP