Eeveryone’s guessing the photo I took of Ali against Liston in 1965 is my favorite – it has even been called the greatest sports photograph of all time. But my favorite photo I have ever taken is Ali v Williams, no doubt about it. This is the only one of my photos 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 than this.
I shot 35 of Ali’s fights. I was at ringside for Sports Illustrated when it won the world title in Miami in 1964 and my photo for it made the cover, so by the time of the Cleveland Williams fight, I was pretty well established. Williams was a very promising heavyweight, but underdog; the main thing I remember from that night was how excited I was about the way I was going to shoot it. Putting a camera in the ring goes back a long way, maybe in the time of Joe Louis, certainly Sugar Ray Robinson. But the lights that lit these fights were always 20 to 25 feet above the ring and there wasn’t a lens wide enough to capture the whole scene; photographers used fisheye lenses so that the ring was never quite square.
When the Houston Astrodome was built, it was the first of its kind. It had 50,000 seats and the fixture was 80 feet in diameter and had to be raised 80 feet above the ring to avoid blocking the view of anyone in the overhead seats. They could bring this platform down to the ground, so that it was easy to attach a camera to it. I realized that I could use a normal lens and get the ring complete with the symmetry of the rows of press around it.
I always go into my jobs prepared. If the fight is 10 p.m. Saturday, I wouldn’t show up at 7 p.m. and I wouldn’t have a beer with my buddies first. I would show up on Wednesday, four days before, to deal with combat publicists and arena electricians to install strobe lights and my remote camera. I remember having a pre-fight test developed to make sure my exposure and focus were correct.
I bet there would be a good knockout. Sometimes a fighter collapses to the chest or falls over the ropes, but Williams lands flat on his back. I knew it had happened in the right place but had no idea how it was going to go until the film was developed.
I’ve always been a little bit crazy – most photographers don’t hang out in the magazine’s photo labs, but I’d go make sure they don’t ruin my film. I remember seeing this photo come out like it was yesterday. It was still damp, heading for the dryer, but even then I knew it was special. Today, fighters enter the ring looking like wrestlers. But in 1966 it was the old tradition: the champion in a white jersey, the challenger in black, no logos or sponsors on the ring apron. The symmetry was perfect.
Look closely at the image and you can see two hanging TV microphones, one near Ali’s head and one near Williams. All Ali had to do was be one foot forward, or Williams could have fallen a yard to his right, and it would have been a bad shot.
The image was not very well received right away; he was little in Sports Illustrated. But the photographers saw it. Ali’s next fight against Ernie Terrell took place in the same location and to my satisfaction there were three or four photographers all vying for the same spot on the lighting rig!
Ali was just one of the sweetest human beings you have ever met. Ali used to stop at a Jewish retirement home on the way back to Kennedy Airport and chat with the former residents – I went with him once. They would finish it by saying, “You’re not that good, you know, Joe Louis would have hit you in the ass!” “He replied:” No way, I would have had it in two rounds! ”
On the one hand, I can count on the athletes I photographed who have become social friends, but Muhammad Ali is one of them. We were friends until his death, his wife is still a friend of mine. Even when Parkinson’s disease was so debilitating, he was still available. He had a hard time leading a conversation at the end, but he still liked having friendly faces around.
Has he already commented on this photo? Two to three times. Every time someone asked him about this picture or Liston’s photo, he would say, “Oh, that’s the best picture!” But when Howard Bingham showed him his photos, Ali would also say, “This is the best picture!” He was still whispering an exclusive in a journalist’s ear – but it was the same exclusive he had just given to three other writers! He loved the camera and he loved every microphone. We were doing a photo in the studio and he would say, “I’ll give you 20 minutes” – then an hour later he would suggest more poses.
When you get a great photo, over time you start to see little things that could make it better – maybe if I got a little closer, you know? But this photo is almost 55 years old, and to this day I’ve never found anything I could have done to improve it. I hit a Grand Slam home run.
CV of Neil Leifer
Née: Lower East Side, New York, 1942.
Qualified: Self-taught – but I had a wonderful teacher in our camera club at Henry Street Settlement.
The influences: Hy Peskin, John G Zimmerman, Mark Kauffman and Marvin E Newman were my heroes.
High point: “The image of Ali Liston changed my life. “
Low point: “When Ali got knocked down during the fight against Frazier in 1974, the referee walked in front of my goal! I put this photo in my book.
Superior council: “Be ready. The more you know what the possibilities are, the better. “
• Neil Leifer. Boxing. 60 Years of Fighting and Fighting is published by Taschen (1000 edition) on December 7.