The 77-year-old artist's The LeRoy Neiman Sketchbook: 1964 Liston vs. Clay 1965 Ali vs. Liston is out on Dec. 30
SI: What's the story behind the sketchbook?
Neiman: I did sketchbooks for both fights: the preparation, the events around the fight, the fights themselves. They stayed in a drawer for 40 years. But over the last half-dozen years there has been a tremendous number of Ali books. They all have their slant, but I was there!
SI: Muhammad Ali has always been one of your favorite subjects. How did you two meet?
Neiman: In 1962 I went to St. Nicholas Arena in New York. I sat down with him in his dressing room and started drawing him. Ali looks at the drawing and says, "I want to draw." I gave him the pad, and he drew an airplane and a profile which was supposed to be him. He wrote, "Next heavyweight champion of the world, 1963."
SI: When did you last draw Ali?
Neiman: Two years ago, but I wouldn't draw him now. I don't like to draw somebody who isn't what he was.
SI: What athletes interest you today visually?
Neiman: Allen Iverson. Like Ali, he acts the way he feels.
SI: Is there a sport that lends itself best to your art?
Neiman: Baseball. Coming into a ballpark, you hit that green field and it's really something. Baseball is beautiful. But my favorite thing was always boxing because I got to know the fighters.
SI: Why do people in the art community say, "Neiman makes art for people who don't like art."
Neiman: If people don't like what I do, that's all right. I studied classically for four years and taught for 10 years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I created the way I paint, and I can't shake it.