In an interview with Juxtapoz magazine, George Lois described the process of connecting with Ali and his hesitancy during the shoot:
I get Ali on the phone and told him that I need him in NYC for 2 days, and he says “Gee George, I can’t…”. And I said, “Fuck you, you’re not doing anything.”
There wasn’t a fight. He had no license to fight, and he would just go to colleges and give talks. He was funny as hell.
Anyways, so I said “I’m going to take a photo of you as Saint Sebastian, blah blah blah.” And Ali says okay. I told him to bring his pretty white fucking trunks and his pretty white shoes and bring your sorry ass.
The day of the shoot, I had looked at hundreds of pictures of the great painting of Saint Sebastian and they are all really bright. But I told Ali, “I want you to pose where your body is very quiet but your head is in pain because I don’t want to show your body like that. I want to show your body strong, but your head is in pain.”
So he’s looking at this postcard of the painting and he looks at it and says, “Hey George, is he a Christian?” And I say, “Saint Sebastian… yes he’s a Christian!”
And Ali says. “George I can’t pose as a Christian.” I said, “It’s a symbolic thing. Anyone in the world can look at this thing and understand the imagery. And the imagery doesn’t say that you’re a Christian, the imagery says that you are a martyr. And what I am saying is that you a martyr to your race, you are a martyr because of the war. It’s a combination of race, religion, and war in one image, you’re symbolizing it in one image.”
And he says, “George, I can’t pose as a Christian, this is against my religion.”
I go holy shit, “Who can I talk to? He didn’t know who. And I said, “Can I talk to Elijah Muhammad? Can you get him on the phone?”
It takes about 2 minutes, but Ali gets him on the phone, so I pick up and have about a 15 minute talk about what religion am I, how old am I, etc. I’m talking to him about symbolism, how Ali is a martyr, blah blah blah. Finally, Elijah asks to speak to Ali.
Then, Ali gets off the phone with him and says, “Lets do it!”