November 14, 1966
For any boxing or sports aficionado, an argument could be made that, on November 14, 1966, Muhammad Ali indeed became the greatest boxer in the sport’s history. On that day, Ali fought Cleveland Williams at the Houston Astrodome in Texas to a record-breaking crowd of nearly 36,000 spectators. By then, Ali was renowned as the reigning heavyweight champion of the world and was defending his title against Williams, deemed one of the hardest punchers in the sport, who was still carrying a bullet in his body from a police shooting the year before. Since winning the title, Ali vowed to defend the belt against all who were willing to fight him and lived up to the promise; Since his upset win over Liston, he took on all top-class contenders and defended the title five times in both the US and in Europe.
In November 1966, Ali would cement his mythical position and fuel his legend as the greatest boxer of all time. Photographer Neil Leifer, who was there when Ali became the world champion by beating Sonny Liston, would capture what would result in arguably Ali’s finest performance.
“Everyone assumes the picture I took of Ali vs. Liston in 1965 is my favorite – it has even been called the greatest sports photograph of all time. But my favorite photograph I ever took is Ali vs. Williams, no question about it. It’s the only one of my photographs hanging in my home. I’ve shot everything in my career, from Charles Manson to the pope, but I’ve never taken a better photograph than this.” – Neil Leifer.
The Early Years
Becoming engrossed in the world of photography early on, Neil Leifer grew up in the projects of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York, where he joined a camera club at one of the “settlement” homes that provided education for low-income families. After that, Neil Leifer would pursue photography as a professional and has had a remarkable career. With more than 200 covers for Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek, and People, Leifer’s photographs span over 50 years. He has captured 16 Olympic Games, 4 FIFA World Cups, 15 Kentucky Derbys, many World Series games, the first 12 Super Bowls, and every heavyweight fight since Ingemar Johansson beat Floyd Patterson in 1959. Moreover, he has shot his favorite subject, Muhammad Ali, over 60 times, at his most significant fights as well as in individual sessions.
“I got used to seeing my name under a picture in the student paper, so that was it.” – Neil Leifer.
“The only picture I’ve ever shot that I wouldn’t change anything about”
In 1966, Neil Leifer captured an astonishing image that perfectly depicts the enchanting spectacle of violence. Much like an ancient Roman mosaic or a classical sculpted relief showing gladiators or chariots jostling between glory and death, the photograph captures a snapshot of our modern era’s spectator sports. Leifer’s photograph arrests the imagination as he captures the violence inherent in human nature, turned into a highly skilled and controlled combat sport.
“You could never take a picture like that nowadays because the canvas is always colored and is covered with advertising and TV network info. It’s the only picture I’ve ever shot that I wouldn’t change anything about.'” – Neil Leifer
80 Feet Above
Before the encounter, Leifer had set up a camera 80 feet above the ring on the arena’s roof. Due to the technology at the time, setting up a wireless camera could have meant risking setting them off by a walkie-talkie, so Leifer wired a remote trigger and prepared to shoot ringside. It was something that no one had tried before, but that eventually, most photographers followed.
“Nobody had ever put a camera in the middle of the lighting rig before, because you couldn’t get the whole ring, except with a fisheye. At Ali vs. Ernie Terrell the following year, there was a fight with six photographers trying to get the absolute middle spot for the camera, but they never got a knockout like Ali vs. Williams.” Neil Leifer.
Muhammad Ali vs. Cleveland Williams
The resulting photograph, Muhammad Ali vs. Cleveland Williams becomes immortal; not only does it cover the fighters and the magnificence of the event, but its composition makes it an essential contributor to the advancement of sports photography in the 20th century. It’s formal, bird’s eye view composition renders a flat image that shows the event and abstracts the scene. It presents a triumphant Ali raising his arms while Williams lays flat on the ground, both in total oppositional gestures, victory, and defeat.
“Like the sports achievers whom they shoot, sports photographers need to know the rules of the game and to be physically up to the challenge of being close to or even in the action.” – 100 Ideas that Changed Photography, Mary Warner Marien
There have been 17 books published on Neil Leifer’s photographs, and he has gone onto work as a director/producer of documentary, short, and feature-length films. Considered one of the greatest sports photographers of all time, his incredible images preserving some of the most significant boxing events continue today, covering the Wilder vs. Fury rematch in 2020. Through Leifer’s lens, the viewer can grasp the essential thrill and beauty of the sport of boxing. In Muhammad Ali vs. Cleveland Williams, Neil Leifer sets up a composition and captures the knockout moment as its focal point. Using the small moments in the image to symbolize the spectacle’s grandeur, Neil Leifer captures the exhilarating battle inherent in the quest to be the greatest.