sport’s most famous photographer tells story behind iconic pictures

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Ever go to HMV as a kid and flick through the poster reels, trying to figure out which one you wanted for Christmas?

If so, even without any interest in boxing whatsoever, you’ve probably come across two famous photographs, both of the same great champion: Muhammad Ali.

Photographs don’t come more iconic than this

Neil Leifer – ‘Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters’

Photographs don’t come more iconic than this

There’s the one of him standing over Sonny Liston, taunting, after the famous ‘Phantom Punch’ in 1965, and there’s the one shot from the ceiling after Ali knocked out Cleveland Williams in 1966.

Both pictures were taken by the same man, Neil Leifer, the only photographer to be inducted into boxing’s Hall of Fame.

But only one of them is hung on the wall of the famous photographer’s New York apartment: the shot of Ali defeating Williams, which was voted the greatest sports photograph of all-time by The Observer.

The Liston knockout came second, by the way.

Leifer is the man behind, not only boxing, but sport’s two most enduring images

Neil Leifer – ‘Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters’

Leifer is the man behind, not only boxing, but sport’s two most enduring images

“I look at it over and over again,” Leifer tells talkSPORT.com. “How do you motivate yourself when you’ve seen everything? You do it by seeing little things in your best work that you would change.

“The Ali vs Williams picture, I’m looking at it now, it’s the only picture that’s on my wall at my home, and I wouldn’t change it.”

In a career spanning 60 years, Leifer’s gift was complemented by Sports Illustrated’s incredible resources, as well as a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

“I’ve been in the wrong place before,” Leifer insists. “Look at the Fight of the Century, when Ali got knocked down by Joe Frazier, I was on the wrong side of the ring, staring at Ali’s rear end, and the referee got in the shot.”

But for the most part, Leifer got unprecedented access to the most famous fighters of all-time, from Ali to Mike Tyson – and became close friends with many.

Leifer shot this picture of Tyson for the cover of TIME Magazine in 1988

Neil Leifer – ‘Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters’

Leifer shot this picture of Tyson for the cover of TIME Magazine in 1988

Those two aforementioned heavyweights are arguably the most photogenic in history – so magnetic and charismatic in front of the camera, it’s no wonder they both feature in so many iconic photographs.

As well as generational talent which few have matched, Leifer knew that both men could work the media better than anyone, with no better example than this story of Ali, a tuxedo, and the 1974 Sportsman of the Year cover.

“If you missed with Ali, then you weren’t very good,” Leifer begins.

“Ali was a handsome fella and he loved the camera. If you give a good photographer time, they’re going to come up with good pictures, and sometimes great pictures.

“He was smart. Mike Tyson was the same. They knew that when they showed up and posed for a studio session with me, because I was working for Sports Illustrated, there was a good chance they’d be on the cover. Almost a 100% chance.

Leifer’s work is being celebrated in a book called ‘Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters’

Neil Leifer – ‘Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters’

Leifer’s work is being celebrated in a book called ‘Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters’

“That sold a lot of tickets and pay-per-views. Sports Illustrated’s biggest issue of the year, besides the swimsuit issue, was Sportsman of the Year. And it was always secret.

“I always thought Ali transcended sport, he was such a colourful character and such a great spokesman for so many different causes. So I suggest we don’t photograph him as a boxer, but shoot it like a GQ cover.

“We were going to put him in a tuxedo against an off-white background, and the magazine loved it. Ali was in Chicago and I was booked to go out and shoot the cover.

Leifer’s book is filled with iconic shots of Ali – and the pair became close friends

Neil Leifer – ‘Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters’

Leifer’s book is filled with iconic shots of Ali – and the pair became close friends

“He told me he had a tuxedo. I drove to his house to pick him up and we rented the PlayBoy Studios in Chicago to do the shoot.

“I got to his house and he had a full-looking garment bag, I assumed he had a tuxedo in there. But he said it was out to the cleaners.

“I didn’t tell him he was going to be Sportsman of the Year, but I did say my editor wanted him in tuxedo.

“So I said, ‘Let’s go rent one!’ There was a store halfway between his home and the studio. Of course, Muhammad spent loads of time talking to the guy behind the counter. And he’s still got this garment bag.

“For a shot like that, if you got through five rolls it was good, six or seven would’ve meant I tried every angle.

“I shoot the first couple of frames in the tuxedo and Muhammad says, ‘I’ve got a walking stick and I’d like to use it’. So we did that.

“We’re finished and I’m ready to drive him home, then he says, ‘I’ve got a couple of things I’d like to try’. We were already six or seven rolls into the shoot!

Leifer got this shot of Fury vs Wilder – and suggests the Gyspy King is similar to Ali for his media approach

Neil Leifer – ‘Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters’

Leifer got this shot of Fury vs Wilder – and suggests the Gyspy King is similar to Ali for his media approach

“He opens up the garment bag and he has his new suit. So we shoot him in that. Then he’s got these African robes that President Joseph-Desire Mobutu of Zaire gave him. I shoot the s*** out of these African robes, and then he pulls out his new sports jacket!

“The bottom line is that he spent two hours posing. Who does that? Every time I’d see him, he’d tell me, ‘Neil – you took too long last time, how long do you need?’ I’d say, ‘15 to 20 minutes’.

“He’d say, ‘That’s all you got!’ But then an hour later he would still be suggesting things.

“He was just a great self-promoter. If you were a sports reporter, he would put his arm around you and whisper, ‘I’ve got an exclusive for you’. He’d make up a b******* exclusive and then tell the next writer the same thing, or some variation of it.

“It was the same with photographers. He was really a very nice guy. He was a great athlete, I’m very prejudice about this, but I think he may just be the greatest athlete of our time.

“If he played American football, he may just have been Jimmy Brown or OJ Simpson. Had he been a track and field athlete, he would’ve been an Olympic champion. He was just a beautiful athlete.

“You would fall in love with Mike Tyson, too, if you met him. He’s just a fantastic guy.

“One of my very, very favourite pictures is the one of Mike Tyson holding the baby.

“Tyson is very much like Ali, when he agrees to do something, he does it well.

“The Time magazine cover of the glove above his face, that’s pretty much like the Ali/Williams picture, there’s not much I would change.

“And the shot with the baby, I wouldn’t change much about either.”


With hundreds of his finest photographs and an introduction assembled from Gay Talese’s best boxing columns, TASCHEN’s Leifer, Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters is the culmination of Leifer’s unprecedented achievement and a love letter to the sport – and it’s available here.





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