Is ‘Ali vs. Liston’ the Greatest Sports Photo of the Century?

I’m Martin from the All About Street Photography channel, and today I want to talk about the photo “Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston” by photographer Neil Leifer. I am going to take a closer at the story behind the photograph and why is this picture so iconic.

The photo we are looking at is an iconic sports photograph taken in 1965 by photographer Neil Leifer with his Rolleiflex camera. It is a photo of the greatest heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali.

Neil Leifer is an American sports photographer and filmmaker. He shot covers for magazines such as People, TIME, and Sports Illustrated, which published Leifer on 170 of its covers. Leifer followed Ali from the beginning of his career to the end, and he is now considered to be one of the greatest sports photographers of all time.

But Leifer was not only a sports photographer. He even said, “I like to think of myself as a photojournalist, not a sports photographer.”

It was on the 25th of February in 1964 in Miami when Cassius Clay beat the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. The match was heavily anticipated and Clay engaged in a psychological war against Liston, calling him “the big ugly bear.” Clay went on to beat Liston in seven rounds after Liston threw in the towel, as he had injured his shoulder and could not continue the fight.

The day after the fight, he announced he had converted to Islam and was a member of the Nation of Islam. He picked (was given) the name Muhammad Ali. The media, however, ignored the fact and advertised the bout as the “Clay-Liston” fight.

The second match took place on May 25, 1965. By the time the match started at 10:40 pm, the ring was already filled with thick blue clouds of smoke, which was not actually blue, but the strobe lights made it look blue when fired through the smoke. After one minute and 44 seconds, what many called a Phantom Punch, Liston’s body hit the ground. It was a knockout. Neil Leifer was positioned on the right side of the ring at the perfect angle.

Even though the photo is almost 55 years old, it almost looks like a studio shot. It was mainly thanks to the powerful lights that the studio effect was achieved but also thanks to cigar smoke in the ring.

In the area of composition, the shot is pretty much perfect. Even nowadays it would be very hard to replicate it since you cannot position your subjects in sports photography to your liking during an event like this. This photograph is a great example of being at the right spot at the right moment. As you can see, those guys just weren’t so lucky.

Unlucky photographers seen in this crop of the iconic Ali photo by Neil Leifer.

“I was obviously in the right seat, but what matters is I didn’t miss,” Leifer later said. “That’s what separates best sports photographers from the ones that are just good — you have to get lucky in sports photography.”

Even though it probably wasn’t intentional, it is a nice moment catching Ali’s hand in this 90-degree angle. Unlike S curves, those sharp 90 degree angles are often used to symbolize strength. It is used not only in photography but also, for example, when posing during bodybuilder competition. This image enhances Ali’s strength and makes him look like a hero.

Ali’s arm angle in Leifer’s photo (left) and a
by Panther Sohi (right).

It’s quite amazing. Only after you see the real-time footage from the match are able to appreciate the moment and the pose Leifer got in this frame.

Leifer also had a special flash over the ring, but since his strobes needed a longer time to recharge, Leifer had this one opportunity to make the picture.

What may be surprising is that the picture was not considered that special at that time — it didn’t make the cover of the Sports Illustrated and was only on the 4th page. When they entered it in the biggest photo contest of the year held by Encyclopedia Brittanica, the University of Missouri Pictures of the Year, the picture didn’t make to the podium and wasn’t even given an honorable mention.

Leifer says it was probably 10 years before people began thinking it was special.

“The picture became special because Ali became so special,” the photographer says.

But at the end of the century, London Observer devoted an entire issue to the 50 greatest sports pictures of all time. Ali — Liston placed second and Ali – Williams, another brilliant photograph ended up winning the contest.

So what do you think? Is “Ali vs. Liston” the greatest sports photo of the century?

About the author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, reviewer, and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kaninsky runs the channel All About Street Photography. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.