It’s amazing how much controversy can be caused by sheer luck.
In this photo of Muhammad Ali after a first-round knockout of Sonny Liston at St. Dominic’s Arena in Lewiston, ME on May 25, 1965, “Everything you’d initially imagine about the image is wrong.”
You might believe this is the moment after a hard punch, but “the photo was actually preceded by the puniest of blows, a ‘phantom punch,’ as it would later be known—a wispy, theoretical mini-hook that none in attendance even observed.” And though it seems like the room is packed with people, it was actually the smallest assembled crowd in heavyweight championship history. “This bout: still boxing’s biggest unsolved mystery. This image: still iconic, even (especially) with the controversy.”
The photographer was Neil Leifer, a 22-year-old hopeful at Sports Illustrated. He was known for his excessive preparations, but it didn’t matter how early he arrived to the arena. The first pick of a seat went to Herb Scharfman, a senior photographer at Sports Illustrated, who chose to sit by the judges’ table. Leifer was forced to choose the opposite side of the ring.
Leifer thought he was at a disadvantage in positioning, but the huge risk he took could have been an even bigger disadvantage. That night, “he went out and loaded Kodak’s latest Ektachrome film into his Rolleiflex medium format—which is an overly technical way of saying that Leifer was shooting in color.” To even attempt to do this, he had to rig special flash units over the ring well before the fight. Yet, “this led to another, bigger challenge: Leifer had one shot. The other photographers brandished the equivalent of semi-automatics while he held a sniper rifle. Leifer’s strobes needed time to recharge, which meant he couldn’t click and click. Whenever a fighter fell, the other photographers could quick-twitch their shutters, but Leifer had to pick one moment.”
“When Liston fell, he fell in front of Leifer, not Scharfman. ‘It didn’t matter how good Herbie was that day,’ Leifer said. ‘He was in the wrong seat.’ Instead of snapping a historic photo, Scharfman became part of one. The balding man between Ali’s legs? That’s Herb Scharfman.”
Next to Leifer was AP photographer John Rooney, who took this photo:
There are small differences, such as the positioning of Scharfman’s head and Ali’s expression. Yet despite only having small differences, Rooney’s photo was the one that made front pages all over the country. Months after the fight, Leifer submitted his photo to the “Pictures of the Year” contest; again, it wasn’t good enough. Years later, Leifer’s photo would be selected as Sports Illustrated‘s cover photo for the issue on “The Century’s Greatest Sports Photos”. The London Observer chose the image as their number two picture in “The World’s 50 Greatest Sports Photographs,” listing Leifer’s picture of Ali vs. Williams as number one (shown below).
Today, Rooney is so entirely unknown for his photograph that his version is often mistakenly marked as a black-and-white copy of Leifer’s work. (Leifer would later make the cover of SI over 150 times and the cover of Life over 40 times, while old Herb Scharfman would become famous mostly as “the answer to a trivia question, a joke. The man between Ali’s legs.”)
There are several reasons for Leifer’s photo being the more iconic of the two. It’s “partly the color and clarity of Leifer’s Ektachrome over Rooney’s black-and-white Tri-X film. Similarly, there’s Leifer’s Rolleiflex camera, as opposed to Rooney’s 35 mm SLR—which is a jargony way of saying that Leifer ended up with a big square, not Rooney’s rectangle. The square is essential. Its solid structure supports, reflects Ali’s strength; more importantly, it captures the blackness above the man.”
The dark space above Ali is key to the image. “Rooney’s photo is cramped, quick; it delivers all its information immediately, forcefully. Leifer’s photo conveys the same power but lets us linger, our eyes allowed to stroll around the stage. [It] lets us consider Ali within his world. He seems all the more strong, archetypal, for such space.”
“If I were directing a movie and I could tell Ali where to knock him down and Sonny where to fall, they’re exactly where I would put them,” said Leifer. But it’s not just the positioning and coloring that makes this photo iconic. “This photo shows Ali at the height of his powers,” Leifer said. “People wanted to remember him at his best.” And here’s where we have to understand the fighters and what really happened between them that night.
Liston grew up as the 24th of 25 children, dealing with an abusive father until his teens. He escaped to Chicago with his mother and boxed to make money. “He never learned to read or write. After his lack of acceptance after his title, buoyed by insecurities from a lack of education, he sunk further and further into his Mafia connections.” With fists 15 inches around and a reach of 84 inches (one of the longest in heavyweight history), Liston wasn’t someone to mess around with. Once, five cops jumped Liston and beat him until they “broke [their] hickory nightsticks” and “still couldn’t get cuffs on him.” Another time, Liston dumped a cop headfirst into a trashcan, and on another occasion he broke his arrestor’s knee, took the gun, and walked away wearing the cop’s hat.
“Everyone loved to hate him.” Liston was set to go up against Muhammad Ali, who had just barely won a fight against Henry Cooper. After being hit by Cooper, almost passing out, and being saved by the bell, Ali’s manager grabbed him some smelling salts (illegal); Ali “floated mid-ring and simply sort of destroyed Cooper. Ali’s movements were loose and casual as he repeatedly, specifically punished a spot to the upper left of Cooper’s eye socket until it swelled grotesquely…. [You] can see something in Cooper’s face break and blood go everywhere.” Had Ali been hit 30 seconds sooner, he “would’ve been knocked out. Which means he wouldn’t have been undefeated. Which means Ali wouldn’t have had the chance to face Liston, which means—pretty much—he never would’ve become Muhammed Ali.”
So Ali (known at the time as Cassius Clay) fought Liston. “And the very day after his big Liston victory, Cassius Clay announced that he was changing his name. He might as well have announced outright opposition to the Vietnam War! Which he soon did. And just like that, public opinion flipped. The day before, Liston had been the baddie, but now everyone wished he’d won. A simple equation, it turned out: The one thing white America hated more than a black man with a criminal past was a cocky black man with radical politics.” They set a rematch for May 25, 1965.
It was a pretty anti-climactic fight. Leifer’s photo seems action-packed and exciting, but there was far too much debate over the ending. “Midway through the first round, Liston fell to the canvas, even though he seemed to have dodged Ali’s punch, and no witnesses on site could say they saw Ali connect. Nonetheless, with Liston suddenly and inexplicably down, referee Joe Walcott ordered Ali to retreat to a neutral corner. Ali refused; instead, he stood over his fallen opponent, gesturing and yelling, ‘Get up and fight, sucker!’ [I wonder if that’s a censored quote.] Ali wanted a clean victory—and this smelled fishy—but no matter; before anyone knew what was going on, Walcott declared Ali the victor, and the fight was over…. The blow that ended the match became known as ‘the phantom punch.’ Even Ali was unsure as to whether or not he’d connected; footage from the event shows Ali, as he exits the arena, asking his entourage, ‘Did I hit him?'” Slow-motion replays confirm Ali did hit Liston, but it doesn’t seem like a hard enough hit to take down a guy like Liston.
A popular theory is Liston “was frightened into taking a fall by the Nation of Islam. The group certainly was militant and broke into sometimes violent factions—Malcolm X had been assassinated just a few months before the fight. Liston supposedly told one biographer that this is why he went down, fear of assassination, but he gave other interviewers contradictory quotes.”
“The truth is,” Leifer said, “I haven’t seen the knockout punch in half the great fights I’ve covered. You’re thinking of strobe lights, batteries, and so many other things.” Leifer’s photo captured Ali’s “Get up and fight, sucker!”, which is a little different from how the viewer originally perceives the photo. But “This photo became the way people wanted to see Ali – charismatic, tough, confident. The circumstances didn’t end up mattering,” said Leifer.
Leifer became one of the best sports photographers of his generation, with Ali as his favorite subject. Though he has turned entirely to filmmaking, Leifer said, “I’d photograph Ali anytime.”