Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston
St. Dominick's Arena, Lewiston, Maine, May 25, 1965

There's no sport I enjoy photographing as much as boxing. The atmosphere of a big-time fight--the crowd, the fashion show, all the celebrities--is electric. When you're shooting ringside, you feel what the fighters feel, hot under the overhead ring lights, squeezed in between the other photographers, all of us pressed up to the apron. When a fighter is against the ropes, you're so close that even with a wide-angle lens, you've got to lean back to get the fighters in frame. Over the last 42 years, I've shot almost every major fight and every major fighter, from Sugar Ray Robinson and Floyd Patterson, to Joe Frazier and George Foreman, to Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, to Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar de la Hoya. Promoter Don King has been one of my best subjects; he never met a camera he didn't love, especially mine. But my favorite subject, no matter what the sport, was and still is Muhammad Ali.

I took my most famous picture on May 25, 1965, when Ali stopped Sonny Liston with one punch in the first round of their heavyweight championship fight in Lewiston, Maine. When Sports Illustrated published its special issue, "The Century's Greatest Sports Photos," my picture of Ali standing over Liston was the cover, and I was honored and thrilled by SI's choice. "It is a great picture of a key moment, filled with emotion and destined to remain etched in the minds of its viewers," says Steve Fine, SI's director of photography. "You can describe this picture to someone, without showing it to them, and they know exactly what you're talking about. It's a true icon of sports photojournalism." This image represents the way people want to remember Ali: strength, confidence and braggadocio. 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. All any editor ever expected from me was a great knockout picture. In Lewiston, the knockout happened exactly where I wanted it to, and my only thought was, "Stay right there, Sonny! Please don't get up!"

Part of being a great photographer is being lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time like I was, but a more important part is not missing when you're in that spot. I got very lucky at the Ali-Liston fight, but what I'm proudest of is that I didn't miss. It's always assumed that the Ali-Liston picture is my favorite. Not so--I took my all-time favorite picture at another Ali fight one and a half years later. Photographers had mounted cameras on the light rigging above the ring before, only they had pointed them down, from the corners, so that they could capture the fighters' facial expressions. Because the lighting rig was usually only about 20 feet above the canvas, even the widest of wide-angle lenses wouldn't allow you to capture the whole ring. But the Ali-Cleveland Williams fight was in the Astrodome, where for the first time, the rig would be about 80 feet up, so it wouldn't block the sightlines of spectators in the upper deck. I realized at that height, you could get the entire ring in the picture, and that it would be perfectly square. Ali-Williams is my personal favorite picture, but I know that 100 years from now, Ali-Liston is the one picture that everybody will remember me by.


The Best of Leifer
The Best of Leifer

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