Heavyweight Matchup

Graphic-design giant George Lois takes on boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

George Lois is, of course, one of the most influential art directors in the history of the profession—creator of the “Think Small” ads for Volkswagen, the “I Want My MTV” campaign that saved the network and launched a cultural phenomenon, and scores of famous covers for Esquire magazine. He is also a boxing fan, and the sport seems to inspire him. Some of his most memorable Esquire covers involved the sweet science, including his visions of Sonny Liston as a black Santa Claus, Muhammad Ali as the martyred Saint Sebastian, and a fallen fighter that just happened to resemble Floyd Patterson—predicting the outcome of the 1962 Liston-Patterson bout.

Lois happens to be a friend of Ali, boxing’s biggest talker. “I met him when he was twenty,” Lois says. He has since collected the fighter’s poems and aphorisms, which he illustrates in his signature high-impact Big Idea style in the new book Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali, the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap. From the constant stream of quotability that flows from Ali’s mouth, Lois has crafted a compelling story in words and pictures. Not that it was easy: “Of course he had a million funny quotes,” Lois says. “I had to be selective. I said to Taschen, ‘Look, you did this gigantic book on Ali (referring to the publisher’s GOAT: Greatest of All Time, which weighs 75 pounds and retails for $4,000)—it’s not a coffee-table book, it is a coffee table—and you didn’t nail his life down because you gotta be selective.’”

Lois’s discipline paid off. “I think it’s a complete autobiography, really. Except for my explanations, it’s all his own words. What I tried to do was to make people understand how im-portant he was and is. He is a great man, an American hero, and at the same time the funniest son of a bitch that ever lived.” He provides an example of Ali’s easy wit: “When rap first started to really get hot in America I remember saying, ‘Hey Muhammad, you’re a rapper.’ He thought about it for a second and then said, ‘Hey George, I’m a double rapper. I rap them with my mouth and then I rap them in the mouth.’ That’s funny stuff. That one’s not in the book!” Lois pauses for a second. “I haven’t told anybody that line—you can use it if you want.”

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