Those who had the opportunity to watch Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring witnessed pure athletic dominance wrapped in a brash display of swaggering bravado. For those who never got the chance to see the heavyweight champion boxer, the pages of LIFE offered an intimate look—if not quite a close second to the real thing.
LIFE's editors dispatched many of the magazine's photographers—including John Shearer, George Silk, John Dominis and Bob Gomel—to capture the athlete at work and at play. Images of Ali in the ring depict a fierce competitor, his chiseled physique reflecting harsh stadium lights, his facial expression the very picture of focus. Though the rapt faces of spectators sometimes find their way into the frame, it's clear that, to Ali, he and his opponent are the only ones in the room.
Photos of Ali outside the arena, meanwhile, offer windows into different aspects of his personality. Some, like Shearer's 1971 photograph of the boxer taunting rival Joe Frazier, show the tactics he used to try to intimidate opponents into believing, as he did, that he was indeed "the greatest." Other images, like Shearer's shot of him outside his Champburger restaurant before taking on Frazier, show a more playful side, a desire to please his legions of fans.
The legacy of Muhammad Ali, of course, extends far beyond his feats of athleticism, to his role as a community leader to his work as a poet. As he wrote in LIFE's pages in 1966:
I can take it on the chin
And that’s the honest truth my friend.
Now from Muhammad you just heard
The latest and the truest word.
So when they ask you what’s the latest
Just say ‘Ask Ali. He’s still the greatest.’
For much more on Muhammad Ali, see TIME’s ALI: The Greatest, a 112-page, fully illustrated commemorative edition. Available at retailers and at AMAZON.COM