Neil Leifer’s iconic picture captures one of the 20th century’s greatest sportsmen at his peak. David Clark looks at the story behind the image
Neil Leifer's iconic photograph of the moment, in 1965, when Ali stood over Liston, shouting, 'get up and fight, sucker'
During his long career, Neil Leifer has amassed a portfolio of brilliant sports photographs and shot more than 200 magazine covers. These include images of major golf, baseball and American football matches, plus seven summer and winter Olympic Games. However, it’s boxing, with its electric atmosphere and close proximity to the action, that he most enjoys photographing.
‘When you’re shooting ringside, you feel what the fighters feel, hot under the overhead ring lights, squeezed in between the other photographers,’ he has written. ‘When a fighter is against the ropes, you’re so close that even with a wideangle lens you’ve got to lean back to get the fighters in frame. But my favourite subject, no matter what the sport, was and still is Muhammad Ali.’
His most famous photograph shows a victorious Ali standing over the defeated Sonny Liston, shot during a 1965 world title fight. It has become one of the most iconic images in sporting history.
At the time the picture was shot, Leifer was just 22 years old but already a seasoned sports photographer. He had been a keen sports fan as a teenager and showed a precocious ability as a photographer. He sold his first pictures to Sports Illustrated magazine on his 16th birthday. Afterwards, he continued submitting work to this magazine, plus Look, Life, Newsweek and other publications. He became a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated in 1972.
On 25 May 1965, Leifer was asked to cover the WBC Heavyweight Championship contest between Ali and Sonny Liston, held at St Dominick’s Arena in Lewiston, Maine. Ali was defending his title against Liston, from whom he had taken the title in February 1964. After that previous contest, Ali became a Black Muslim, joined the controversial Nation of Islam organisation and changed his name from Cassius Clay.
Ali, nicknamed ‘the Louisville Lip’, was known as much for his larger-than-life personality as for his unorthodox but highly effective boxing style (‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’). In one of his trademark poems issued before the rematch, Ali confidently predicted ‘a total eclipse of Sonny.’
At the beginning of the bout, Neil Leifer had, as usual, joined the other sports photographers at the ringside. He was using a 21⁄4in-square Rolleiflex, partly for the high quality of the images it produced and partly for the 1/500sec sync speed it offered with strobe lighting, enabling him to freeze the action. He was also one of only two photographers at the ringside whose camera was loaded with colour film.
This fight, however, was to end abruptly and in highly controversial circumstances. Within two minutes of the beginning of the first round and with very few apparently significant punches having been thrown by either man, Liston suddenly crashed to the floor and seemed unable to get up. The referee asked Ali to retreat to a neutral corner, but he refused. Instead, he stood over Liston, shouting, ‘Get up and fight, sucker!’ This was the moment captured in Leifer’s picture. A few seconds afterwards, Liston was counted out and Ali had sensationally retained his heavyweight boxing crown.
Afterwards, there was speculation that Liston had thrown the fight, either because he had bet against himself to pay off debts or because he feared he would be killed by the Nation of Islam extremists who followed Ali.
‘A two-minute fight might be a major disappointment for the fans, but for a photographer it doesn’t matter whether it goes 15 rounds or 15 seconds,’ Leifer later commented on the Digital Journalist website. ‘All any editor ever expected from me was a great knock-out picture. In Lewiston, the knock-out happened exactly where I wanted it to, and my only thought was, “Stay right there, Sonny! Please don’t get up!”’
Leifer’s picture captures the most dramatic moment of the fight from the perfect position. He admitted that luck played a part in the picture, in the sense that he was in exactly the right seat. His Sports Illustrated colleague, Herbie Scharfman, was on the other side of the ring and is actually seen through Ali’s legs in the picture. ‘It didn’t make a difference how good [Scharfman] was that night. He was obviously in the wrong seat,’ Leifer said in a 2002 interview. However, he also added, ‘What the good sports photographer does is when it happens and you’re in the right place, you don’t miss.’
Leifer believes his picture of Ali vs Cleveland Williams, which he shot from 80ft above the ring using remote camera, is better than the Ali vs Liston image
Leifer acknowledges that the Ali vs Liston picture is the one he will be remembered
by, although he personally believes that his best picture was shot in 1966, when
Ali defended his title against Cleveland Williams. This picture (see above) was shot from 80ft (24 metres) directly above the ring, using a remote camera. It’s undoubtedly also a brilliant ‘knock-out’ picture, but it takes a more distanced and abstract view of events.
In contrast, Leifer’s earlier Ali vs Liston picture captures the raw energy of boxing as well as a significant moment in the career of one of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century. The image shows Ali at his peak and is made more poignant by our knowledge of his current long-term battle with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. As Leifer has commented, ‘This image represents the way people want to remember Ali: strength, confidence and braggadocio.’ ap
Books: The Neil Leifer books currently in print include Neil Leifer: Portraits (2003) and Baseball: Ballet in the Dirt (2008). His book Muhammad Ali Memories is currently out of print, but available second-hand on www.amazon.co.uk.
Websites: Leifer’s own website, www.neilleifer.com, features a range of his work, from boxing and other sports images to military, wildlife and general news pictures. The transcript of Leifer’s detailed interview with Chris Maher and Larry Berman can be seen at
www.bermangraphics.com/press/leifer.htm. The entire Ali vs Liston fight can be seen on www.youtube.com.
Events of 1965
- 20 January Lyndon B Johnson is sworn in as President of the United States following his landslide victory in the 1964 US election
- 24 January Former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill dies at Chartwell, his home in Kent, at the age of 90, following a severe stroke
- 21 February Human rights activist and Muslim minister Malcolm X is assassinated while giving a speech in New York
- 8 March Around 3,500 United States Marines become the first American combat troops in Vietnam. It marks the beginning of the ground war in the rapidly escalating conflict
- 25 July Bob Dylan causes controversy and outrage among many folk musicians by playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival
- 9 September Hurricane Betsy hits the US states of Florida and Louisiana with winds of up to 155mph. It causes 76 deaths and more than a billion dollars’ worth of damage
- 8 October The Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower) opens in Cleveland Street, London
- 16 October The Beatles receive their MBE medals from the Queen at Buckingham Palace
- 27 November Around 40,000 protestors, angry about US involvement in the Vietnam War, surround the White House then march on the Washington Monument
- 5 December Charles de Gaulle is re-elected as the French President for a second term