One of the Most Iconic Images in Sports History

One of the most iconic images in sports history is, amusingly, taken inside of a pool in South Florida. In 1961, Flip Schulke captured an up-and-coming black boxer submerged in one of the few desegregated pools in America at a hotel in Overtown, a historically black neighborhood in downtown Miami. Holding an iconic fighting stance underwater in a swimming pool, wearing his legendary Everlast boxing trunks, then upcoming boxer Cassius Clay became immortalized. Jabbing underwater, to then position himself with the ultimate boxer’s pose, he helped create an image that influenced the rest of his career and, fundamentally, the world of sports.

Boxer and Creative Director

Yet, the idea for the striking picture wasn’t the photographer’s alone. Cassius Marcellus Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali in honor of his faith, had met the photographer Schulke the day prior. Sports Illustrated sent Flip Schulke to capture the young boxer who had, the year prior, taken Gold at the 1960 Olympic games.

While meeting with the photographer, Ali recognized Schulke’s affinity for shooting underwater. The photographer recalled an article about water skiers he had recently published. Then, a day later, when meeting for the shoot, Ali was already in the pool. Perhaps, considering a cinematic moment, the nineteen-year-old boxer, charismatic and media-savvy since his earliest years, trained inside the water, telling the photographer of his “usual” underwater shadow boxing routine.

“When Sports Illustrated assigned me a story about a young boxer, Cassius Clay, I had never heard of him. I showed him my underwater pictures of water-skiing to impress him that I had done a story for Life. I went to the motel where he was staying, and there he was in the swimming pool going through his workout. He was doing a hook and a jab, and I could see the bubbles. I said to him, ‘That’s fantastic because I see your fists going through the water, like my water-skiing pictures.’

“And he said to me, right back, ‘Oh, I’ve always done this. An old trainer up in Louisville told me that if I practice in the pool, the water resistance acts just like a weight.’ It all sounded plausible to me.” – Flip Schulke.

When One Door Closes, Another Opens

Initially, Schulke’s contacted Sports Illustrated, pitching them the idea to shoot the boxer underwater. Nevertheless, they rejected the concept. Still determined to shoot Ali underwater, Schulke contacted Life magazine, which was known to push the boundaries of sports photography. They opted to publish the pictures. Schulke unpacked his gear soon after, and borrowing a pair of Everlast shorts from the boxer so he could jump in the pool, the iconic session began.

Life Magazine, "A Wet Way to Train for a Fight", September 8, 1961
Life Magazine, “A Wet Way to Train for a Fight”, September 8, 1961

“I had to wear a pair of his boxing shorts because I had forgotten my swimming trunks that day. I put on my scuba gear and got several shots of him practicing different punches in the water. Then I turned around, and there he was, standing on the bottom of the pool. I mean, that’s very hard to do, and he’s in a perfect boxing pose. So, I swam over real quick and I got about six pictures of him. He was holding his breath all this time and not making any movement. The only regret I have is, when Life ran the story, they didn’t select that picture. More people have requested that picture worldwide than any single picture I ever shot.” – Flip Schulke.

An Emblem of the 1960s

Ali’s perfect boxing stance and iconic image-making weren’t a rare occurrence. It was evidence of his trailblazing essence in the underwater photo. For one, his impressive speed and reflexes weren’t only perceivable in the ring. In the outside world, in the Civil Rights America of the 1960s, his quick wit and unshakeable moral foundations made him an emblem of 1960s counterculture. At a time when the country experienced difficult years of social upheaval, Muhammad Ali was at the center of it, not only as a boxing champion but also as a pop culture icon and social activist.

Muhammad Ali Boxing Underwater

Flip Schulke, Muhammad Ali Boxing Underwater, 1961
Flip Schulke, Muhammad Ali Boxing Underwater, 1961, Silver Gelatin Photograph

In Muhammad Ali Boxing Underwater, fists clenched and eyes open, the boxer symbolizes the enduring image of the fighter, the relentless soldier of human history. Flip Schulke, who had left his post as a former University of Miami professor to capture the ongoing social changes and Civil Rights progress of the 60s, unintentionally caught one of the most legendary sports pictures of all time, partly by being duped. At the time of the underwater picture, the boxer could not swim. Of course, he had never trained his boxing technique underwater. The idea had sprung from the fighter’s incisive insight into the media, further proving his immutable American legacy. In Muhammad Ali Boxing Underwater, the boxer becomes endless, the essence of an indomitable spirit.

“Three years later, after Cassius Clay won the heavyweight boxing championship and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, I went back to photograph him again. We were looking through a scrapbook, and when he came across my underwater pictures he winked at me. I realized he had taken me. I learned later he and his trainer had come up with the whole story on their own. He didn’t even know how to swim. He fooled me, he fooled a Life reporter, he fooled everybody-and it made fantastic pictures. It showed me what a brilliant guy he was, even at 19. He thought up an idea I would swallow. But I’m really proud of the whole thing.” – Flip Schulke.