(c)1965 Associated Press
It is known among boxing fans simply as, “The Photo.” It is without a doubt the single, most famous boxing photograph ever taken. It freezes forever in time, the social, political, cultural and sporting climate of an entire decade. In fact, it would not be a stretch to call it the greatest sports photograph of all time. It is certainly the most iconic and well-known sports photograph of its time and beyond; it has been immortalized on posters, t-shirts, hoodies, books, magazines, newspapers and, is ubiquitous on the internet. “The Photo,” has sold countless millions of copies throughout the world. In fact, I have a large version of it framed in glass in my dining room. I also have three t-shirts depicting the classic photo.
Of course I am speaking of the incredibly beautiful and iconic, color photograph taken by Hall of Fame inductee Neil Leifer, of an angry, defiant, ascendant, triumphant and revolutionary Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston moments after Ali had dropped Liston in their rematch. Liston went down - like a heavy anchor onto the ocean floor, courtesy of a brutally short, sharp right hand from Ali, which caught the ponderous, off-balance, lunging Liston on his temple. The punch and the picture that caught it, were Ali’s way of announcing his arrival on the world stage and eliminating any doubt of his greatness.
Their first fight ended in controversy. Their rematch was known as “The Battle of the “Phantom Punch.” Watch the tape. This was no phantom punch. It was a brutal blow and did real damage to Liston.
Ali had followed trainer Angelo Dundee’s instructions perfectly. He slipped Liston’s lumbering left jab, slid about an inch to his right (to create an angle) and threw a lightning quick counter right hand, which caught the off-balance “Big Ugly Bear” leaping forward. Ali used this same series of moves, designed and named by Dundee as the “Slip, slide and bang” maneuver, to knock out other fighters, such as Zora Folley, Karl Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams and George Foreman, just to name a few. As Angelo Dundee said, “Liston’s head was usually out over his front foot when he jabbed, effectively putting him off balance. I told The Big Guy to slip the jab, move an inch to his right to create the angle and throw a straight right hand. It worked to perfection.”
“The Photo” captured so much more than one boxer knocking out another boxer. It caught more than two boxers at divergent stages in their respective careers. It was an accurate snapshot of the mood of a nation at that exact moment in time.
“The Photo” perfectly encapsulated the spirit and hope of the era in which it was shot. It was at that precise moment that the rambunctious 1960’s changed direction and purpose for good. Ali was a big part of that change and “The Photo” helped define the decade. Ali’s triumphant and defiant mood in the picture defined the Civil Rights struggle that raged in the streets of America. His worldwide influence was in its ascendancy, although still years away from what it would become. Ali seemed to be saying, “Now the decade belongs to me!” And it did!
After “The Photo” was published, stories about Ali appeared in newspapers, magazines and all media, every day, for the rest of his life and beyond. “The Photo” was a royal decree in a sense. His coronation. His coming out party.
Ali represented all that was good and possible about the human condition throughout the United States and the world, in the raucous 1960’s. He represented freedom in all its many aspects: freedom to live on his own terms. Freedom to express his views on social, political and civil issues. Freedom of religion. Freedom to vote and be treated like man. Freedom to oppose those forces in society he viewed as wrong and immoral, and, perhaps the most important freedom of all – the freedom of any individual to protest by voicing objection to and protest against the war in Viet Nam.
Ali was more than just the heavyweight champion of the world. He was the champion of a youth culture that was dominating the United States (on college campuses and in the world of the arts, in particular, music). Ali was the champion of Black peoples all over the world for standing up to his (and by extension, their) white oppressors. In time, he became the People’s Champion. In time he represented every race, creed, color and religion. Youth on college campuses were fighting to have their voices heard and their ideas acted upon. Ali helped in that fight. “The Photo” perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the United States, in every state of the Union, exactly as it was on that night, May 25, in Lewiston, Maine, in 1965, the year “The Photo” was shot.
The Neil Leifer photo, in a very real sense, serves as a jumping off point for the revolution going on then, in music, colleges, art, literature, sports and, especially Civil Rights throughout the United States. “The Photo” also shows Ali casting off his oppressors, mainly the old guard (The Mob) in boxing and the old guard of the boxing media, in a fashion similar to former African colonies freeing themselves from their erstwhile colonial rulers.
Maybe it’s the fact that Liston’s arms are splayed out by his side (in an almost Christ-like manner) signifying total surrender to both Ali and the changing times. The old way of doing things was now officially dead, vanquished by rampaging youth, while the brash and boastful new methods of the future were here to stay. Liston was from boxings’ crooked and corrupt slimy past. He symbolized a time when organized crime exercised unchallenged brutal control over many (African American) businesses, and the sport of boxing.
Liston was owned by the powerful Chicago Mafia also known simply as, The Outfit. It took a religious group, The Nation of Islam, to loosen the age-old mob grip on professional boxing. This too was captured in Leifer’s magnificent photograph. This photo is worth so much more than merely a thousand words. It spoke volumes about time, change, youth and glory, which, is why “The Photo” resonated so much when it first appeared and still continues to stir human souls to this very day.
The real gift, the true majesty of “The Photo,” is that it gives hope by making the future seem possible; and inspires you to never stop fighting for what you believe in. Is there any greater act you can do for another human being than inspire them?
Ali represented something entirely new and exuberant and sensuous both in and out of the ring. He moved with the speed of a racehorse, the grace of Nureyev and the power of a Saturn V rocket. Ali was the vibrant new king of a younger realm that was on its way to taking over the world; a vociferous, youthful ruler for a restless younger populace and an exciting new time in American life, filled with the promise of new possibilities, free from the corruptions and limitations of the past. Ali represented freedom for every individual. He dynamic personality and ring skills made all people feel better about themselves. That was the, “Ali Magic.”
Outside the ring, Ali was a gentle soul with empathy, comedic timing and a generous heart. In the squared circle, Ali was “The King of the World,” “The Greatest”, the destroyer of bullies. The worldwide public took great pleasure in Ali’s delight in his own ability to lay bullies out permanently in public for the whole world to appreciate. Leifer’s photo is Ali’s career calling card. There is Ali in all of his youth and unrivaled physical supremacy. Perfect in mind body and soul, his muscles taut and ready to defend any challenges to his crown and newly established kingdom.
“The Photo” captures
a perfectly proportioned Ali in all of his well-muscled glory. Former Los
Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray once remarked, upon seeing “The
Photo,” “I want to borrow Muhammad Ali’s body for one weekend. There are five
guys I want to beat up and three women I’d
like to make love to!” Ali’s facial expression, as he looms over the fallen,
former, corrupt king, Liston, seems to be saying, “There is a new king on the
throne! I am now the Defender of the Realm and the future belongs to
How did Leifer shoot
such a perfect and magnificently iconic photograph?
Leifer knew both
boxing and Ali very well. He was quite aware of Ali’s speed and his tremendous
ring mobility. So, in order not to miss any action in the ring, Leifer used 5
cameras in total. He set up one fully loaded camera on each side of the ring
plus an overhead camera just under the giant scoreboard up above. Each camera
had a remote cord that he could push to snap thousands of photos at a time
regardless of where he (Leifer) was standing around the ring. Leifer kept
running from side to side during the fight, snapping photos non-stop. It was
only much later back in his hotel room, reviewing what he had just shot that he
realized he had a masterpiece on his hands.
stunning first round knockout of the brooding, menacing former world heavyweight
champion Liston gave everyone in the USA a real sense that the audacity of hope
(as uttered by president Barak Obama decades later) was truly in the air and
that positive changes were well on their way to fruition. Ali’s dramatic win
showed Americans that the future was indeed right now and not somewhere down the
line. The future was now because Ali had made it so by stretching this bullying
stalwart of the old guard past. This was America after the assassination of a
beloved and dynamic young President Kennedy. The USA needed a lightning rod, a
focal point, another dynamic and charismatic young leader, to pull itself out of
its seemingly intractable period of grief, which began suddenly with the
shocking murder of the youthful JFK, who engendered hope for the future and a
better world for all Americans and, indeed, the entire world. Kennedy made
everything seem possible. Ali picked up the baton from the fallen President and
brought that same feeling back to America and the world.
Ali was the man at
the door of the 1960’s. He was in a way the protector of the myth of Camelot
after JFK was struck down. By beating Liston, Ali, in his own way, preserved
Camelot by preventing organized crime and those in power in business and in
Washington, from co-opting the entire decade for their own antediluvian
Ali was the man who made sports fans and, in fact, all Americans believe that
anything was possible if they were willing to put in the hard work to get there.
It is impossible to look at that wonderful image of the young Ali, standing over
the freshly slain dragon that is Liston, and about to enter the prime of his
career, without hearing the sounds of the sixties emanating from the “The Photo”
and ringing in your ears.
Many people are
unaware there are in fact two slightly different pictures of that moment, taken
nanoseconds apart. In the black and white photo, Ali is standing with that
youthful snarl on his face, and his arms outstretched by his side, taunting
Liston to get up and show the world he can fight. In the other, more famous
color photo, taken just a split second later, Ali’s right arm is bent at the
elbow, almost touching his left shoulder, as if he is beckoning Liston to get up
off of the canvas (Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes) and fight him like a
real man. The bull had been slain. The matador was victorious. The bully was no
more. He had been gored by youth in the form of a hurricane known as Muhammad
Ali. The color photograph is also symbolic of the spirit and vigor Ali brought
to the decade. Ali took a black and white America and infused it with the
dynamism of color. The impact which “The Photo” has on the viewer is visceral
and everlasting, much like Ali himself.
evocative, eternal, color photograph of Ali the Conqueror, standing over Liston,
the defeated and fallen despot, with his arm cocked and ready for further battle
if necessary, continues to thrill us to this very day. That photo froze Ali in
youthful eternity for all time. He is young and powerful and transcendent
forever in Neil Leifer’s
photo with each new glance.
So, a photograph is indeed worth a thousand words and, so much more. Leifer, through careful and precise preparation, managed to encapsulate an entire decade and a nation in one moment, one dynamic shot of Ali lighting up the night sky like a comet blazing across the cosmic firmament. Ali was the social, political, cultural and sporting equivalent of the Big Bang, leaving a profound legacy that still continues to shake up the world. The decade of the 1960’s, for all it’s good and bad belonged to Ali, which proved irrefutably that he was, what he always claimed to be, The Greatest!
Return to beginning of article
Go to Muhammad Ali record
Go to Sonny Liston record
Lou Eisen biographical sketch