BEHIND ICONIC PHOTOS: Muhammad Ali, by Neil Leifer. Stand up and fight!

Iconic photos of public figures can capture a moment in time that marks an entire era, or becomes emblematic of a specific day in history. Such is the case with the iconic photo of the greatest heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali by photographer Neil Leifer.

If you enjoy this type of article you won’t want to miss our last Behind Iconic Photos blog post about Winston Churchill.

Background

Neil Leifer is known as one of the top sports photographers of all time. His shots have graced the covers of more than 200 issues of Sports Illustrated, Time and People magazines. He’s covered not only famous athletes but also a variety of characters – from Charles Manson to the Pope.

He is the author of two of most iconic sports photos of all time, both of them boxing matches including Muhammad Ali: the Ali-Cleveland and the Ali-Liston fight.

Leifer grew up in a Low-income housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and began studying photography at a Camera Club at the age of 13, as part of a free class program initiative for poor kids to try to get them off the streets (the program also produced other outstanding photographers like Stanley Kubrick !). The Lower East Side was a pretty rough neighborhood at the time, and kids often fell into gangs, drugs and trouble. He soon got hooked on photography and managed to combine his lifelong passion, sports, with the new fantastic tool, photography.

Young Neil was involved in a lot of odd small jobs to survive in NYC: shoe shiner, sandwich deliverer, but he got his start in sports photography by finagling his way into baseball games in his city. You could really feel the sports passion on the streets at that time, because every boy in NY was a baseball fan ! He obtained free passes to the American football league as a volunteer, pushing the wheelchairs of handicapped patrons and took advantage of it by properly using his camera, although he wasn’t a credentialed photographer.

Despite his young age, Neil caught several good images of a very important game of the New York Giants which he luckily sold to Sports Illustrated. One of the editors liked his work and he was booked as the young revelation of the magazine. At the age of 18, Leifer had his first cover shot.

“Get up and fight…” The Photo

Muhammad Ali reacts after his first round knockout of Sonny Liston during the 1965 World Heavyweight Title fight at St. Dominic’s Arena.

 

This fight was the second, the rematch. The first took place in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964. Back then, the challenger, a young 22 year old Cassius Clay unpredictably beat the heavyweight champion of the world Sonny Liston -an intimidating and dominating fighter with a criminal past and ties to the mob. Clay was known for his dazzling speed and constant movement, but also for being a bigmouth and a provocateur. This second fight promised to be a titans clash.

A few days before the match, Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, after converting to Islam. The 23 year old appeared for the first time publicly for the fight as Muhammad Ali, which the media ignored because of its controversial connotations. The fight was billed as the “Clay-Liston” fight.

The fight began a little after 10:40 p.m. By the time the match started, the powerful strobe lights and thick blue clouds of cigar smoke had turned the ring into a stage. The bell rang and two massive shadows became the focus of a million eyes all over the world.

1 minute and 44 seconds into the very first round, Liston’s body hit the squared canvas. The knockout punch was the lethal combination of Ali’s signature speed and a stunningly powerful right-hand punch, which hit the former champion square in the jaw. Neil Leifer was positioned on the right, at the perfect ringside spot assigned by Sports Illustrated. He didn’t fail to capture the historical moment with his Rolleiflex camera. This epic, euphoric moment, depicting the stature of Ali, the fighter, the social vindicator, urging the other to : “GET UP AND FIGHT…”

This image enhances Ali and puts him on a pedestal like a hero.

Overall view of the World Heavyweight Title fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston at St. Dominic’s Arena. Lewiston, Maine 5/25/1965.

“The Ali-Liston fight in Lewiston, Maine, I will never have a night like that, ever. The fight went two minutes and eight seconds. Well, I got three great pictures. I got the fisheye picture — the knockout — and I got, obviously, my iconic photo of Ali standing over Liston, and I got this third picture, which is one of a kind really. It’s the entire arena probably just before the knockout happens as both fighters are still standing. Two minutes and eight seconds, not a bad night’s work.” – Neil Leifer.

 

Multiple exposure portrait of Muhammad Ali demonstrating “Ali Double-Clutch Shuffle” during a photo shoot at Life Studios. New York, New York 12/30/1966.

 Leifer and Ali together in the LIFE studios in New York City in 1966.

“What the good sports photographer does is when it happens and you’re in the right place, you don’t miss. Whether that’s instinctual or whether it’s just luck, I don’t know.” – Neil Leifer.

Muhammad Ali was not only a professional heavyweight boxer champion, he was also a fighter outside of the ring. He became deeply involved into civil rights movements activism supporting racial emancipation, making him an inspiration for African Americans.

In 1966 Ali was arrested when he refused to be enrolled into the United States Armed Forces. He was put on trial, stripped of his boxing titles and forbidden to fight anywhere else in the world. During this process, Ali lost almost 4 years of performance at the peak of his boxing career. But, he kept fighting in another ways; giving speeches at colleges and on television, turning him into an icon for an entire counter-culture generation.

As time went by, his fame as an athlete and as a human being rose higher and he was ranked as the greatest athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated. He was also recognized as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time and one of the best known athletes in the world.

The iconic photo that Neil Leifer took that night, grew in popularity, as did the legend of Ali.

Aerial of Muhammad Ali victorious after his round two knockdown of Cleveland Williams during the 1966 World Heavyweight Title fight at the Astrodome. Houston, Texas 11/14/1966.

As a sports photographer, Neil Leifer was known for taking risks and for his groundbreaking techniques. This image was taken at the 1966 heavyweight title fight between Cleveland Williams and Muhammad Ali.

For this picture, Leifer used a remote controlled motorized Hasselblad placed right over the center of the ring, on the hanging lighting rig to get a full superior view of the Houston Astrodome’s canvas. Magazines and television spent a lot of money on covering these events. Thanks to the illumination of the powerful overhead strobe lights the result is a high quality image. One of the interesting attributes of this image is that it’s surprisingly abstract for a sports picture.

 

© All photos by Neil Leifer. To purchase Neil Leifer’s photos: Contact: sales@neilleifer.com | 888-802-3354

QUESTIONS FOR THE AGORA COMMUNITY:

Which public figure or celebrity would you like to photograph? Why?