eOne person assumes the photo you took Or in Liston and 1965 It’s my favorite – it’s even been called the greatest sporting photo ever. But my favorite photo that I took is Ali v Williams, no doubt about that. It is the only one of my pictures hanging in my house. I have photographed everything in my career, from Charles Manson to the Pope, but I have never taken a better photo.
You fired 35 fights on me. I was by the ring on Sports Illustrated when he won the world title in Miami in 1964 and my photo shoots for that cover so by the time of the Battle of Cleveland Williams I was well established. Williams was a very promising heavyweight but an underdog. The main thing I remember from that night is how excited I was how it was portrayed. Positioning the camera above the ring goes way back, perhaps to the days of Joe Lewis, and definitely Sugar Ray Robinson. But the lights that lit those fights were always 20 to 25 feet above the ring and there wasn’t a lens wide enough to capture the entire scene; The photographers used fisheye lenses so the ring did not look completely square.
When Houston Starlet It was the first of its kind. It had 50,000 seats, the lighting width was 80 feet and had to be 80 feet above the track to avoid blocking anyone’s view in the highchair. They could have brought this excavator straight to the ground so the camera was easy to mount to it. I realized I could use a normal lens and get the full ring with symmetry, press rows around.
I always go to my job ready. If the fight is at 10pm on a Saturday, I won’t show up at 7pm and have a beer with my buddies first. I would be on Wednesday, four days earlier, to deal with propaganda warriors and circuit electricians to set up the strobe lights and distant camera. I remember having a test roll developed before the fight to make sure my exposure and focus were correct.
I bet there would be a good knockout. Sometimes a fighter collapses on his chest or falls into ropes, but Williams has fallen flat on his back. I knew it happened in a good place but I had no idea how it looked until the movie was developed.
I was always a little crazy – most of the paparazzi don’t walk around the magazine’s photo labs, but I was going to make sure they didn’t spoil my movie. I remember seeing this photo appear as if it was yesterday. It was still wet, destined for the dryer, but even then I knew it was special. Today, fighters come into the ring as wrestlers. But in 1966, that was the old tradition: Champion in white pants, Challenger in black, and no pennants or patrons on the track. The symmetry was perfect.
Look closely at the photo and you can see two TV microphones hanging down, one near Ali’s head and the other near Williams. All I had to do was be one foot forward, or Williams could have dropped yards to his right, and it would have been a bad shot.
The photo didn’t immediately get much praise; She ran small at Sports Illustrated. But the paparazzi saw that. Ali’s next fight against Ernie Terrell was in the same spot, and luckily there were three or four photographers all competing for the same spot on the lighting platform!
Ali was just one of the sweetest humans I have ever met. He used to stop at a Jewish nursing home on his way back to Kennedy Airport and chat with old residents there – I went with him once. They wrapped it up saying, “You’re not good, you know, Joe Lewis was going down your ass!” He would reply: “No way, I would have received him in two rounds!”
On the one hand I can count on the athletes I photograph who have become social friends, however Muhammad Ali He is one of them. We were friends until he died, and his wife is still a friend of mine. Even when Parkinson’s disease was so debilitating, he was always available. He had a hard time having a conversation by the end, but he always liked having friendly faces.
Has he ever commented on this shot? Twice. Whenever someone asked him about this picture or a picture of Liston, he’d say, “Oh, that’s the bigger picture!” but when Howard Bingham Show him his pictures so Ali says, too, “This is the best picture!” He was always whispering in a journalist’s ear – but it was the same exclusive thing he had just given to three other writers! He loved the camera and loved every microphone. We were taking a shot in the studio and he says “I’ll give you 20 minutes” – then an hour later he’s still suggesting poses.
When you get a great photo, over time you start to see little things that can make it better – maybe if you come tighter, you know? But this photo is almost 55 years old, and to this day, I have never found anything I could have done to improve it. You have hit a home grand slam.
Biography of Neil Leifer
born: Lower East Side, New York, 1942.
trainee: Self-made – but I had a great tutor at our camera club at Henry Street Settlement.
Effects: Hi BiscayneJohn G. Zimmerman, Mark Kaufman, and Marvin E. Newman were my heroes.
High point: “A picture of Ali Liston changed my life.”
Low point“When I fell in the Battle of Fraser in 1974, the referee walked in front of my lens! I put that shot in my book.”
The most important tip: “Be prepared. The more you know about the possibilities, the better.”
• Neil Leifer. boxing. 60 Years of Fighting and Fighting It was published by Taschen (1000th edition) on December 7.