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Shortly after watching a 2006 CBS profile about Michael Kalish — and the pop-art license plate portraits he’d crafted of American idols like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and her own husband, Muhammad Ali, Yolanda Ali shot the Los Angeles–based artist an e-mail asking if they could meet to commission a sculpture.

“I was like, ‘Wow! Is someone messing with me?’ ” recalls Kalish, 38. “It was the coolest e-mail ever.” A few days later, Yolanda and the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) himself were sitting in Kalish’s studio, where he went on to make a triptych of Ali with license plates from Zaire, Italy and New York. The three became quick friends and, in 2009, Yolanda proposed that Kalish render a large-scale sculpture of Ali
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Left: Michael Kalish
that could carry on his legacy for years to come. But, to further the legacy of a sport and humanitarian icon who’s been immortalized by Andy Warhol, LeRoy Neiman, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Shepard Fairey, his idea had to be unique. Luckily, two words came to him in a feverish dream in the summer of 2009: speed bags. Though he initially envisioned a stone sculpture, Kalish later thought to make an architectural art piece in which the bags floated in a seemingly abstract form that presents itself as a sculptural replication of a beguiling Ali portrait that was snapped before a 1977 fight with Earnie Shavers. The only hitch? How to make it. Kalish had interest from many top art engineers, including Carlson & Co., but none of them clicked. Serendipitously, the artist related his plight to his metal supplier, who suggested he meet with Angeleno architects Dwayne Oyler and Jenny Wu of the Oyler Wu Collaborative. “We saw it as this big architectural challenge,” says Oyler, noting they buffed up on Ali clips every morning to get inspiration. Eschewing what Wu calls a “conventional Britney Spears concert” framework of trusses for a soaring aluminum-tube superstructure, their installation elegantly anchors 1,300 custom speed bags (in two colors and three sizes) with five miles of stainless steel cable. Two years — and hundreds of thousands of Kalish’s dollars later — ReALIze is finally debuting this month at L.A. Live with a red-carpet premiere March 25. (Subsequent stops include New York and Miami Beach, followed by Asia and Europe in 2012.) “I want this to be a giant concert in the park, where a million people come out,” says Kalish. “It’s very exciting."