Everyone assumes the picture I took of Ali v Liston in 1965 is my favourite – it has even been called the greatest sports photograph of all time. But my favourite photograph I ever took is Ali v 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.
I shot 35 of Ali’s fights. I was ringside for Sports Illustrated when he won the world title in Miami in 1964 and my photo for that made the cover, so by the time of the Cleveland Williams fight I was pretty well established. Williams was a very promising heavyweight but the underdog; the main thing I remember from that night was how excited I was about how I was going to shoot it. Putting a camera over the ring goes way back, maybe to Joe Louis’ days, certainly Sugar Ray Robinson. But the lights that lit up those fights were always 20-25ft over the ring and there was no lens wide enough to capture the whole scene; photographers used fisheye lenses so the ring never quite looked square.
When the Houston Astrodome was built it was the first of its kind. It had 50,000 seats and the lighting fixture was 80ft across and had to be elevated 80ft above the ring in order to avoid blocking anyone’s view in the seats high up. They could bring this rig right down to the floor so it was easy to fasten a camera to it. I realised I could use a normal lens and get the full ring with the symmetry of the press rows around it.
I always go into my jobs prepared. If the fight is 10pm on Saturday I wouldn’t show up at 7pm and have a beer with my buddies first. I’d show up on Wednesday, four days before, to deal with fight publicists and arena electricians to set up strobe lights and my remote camera. I remember getting a test roll developed before the fight to make sure my exposure and focus was right.
I gambled that there would be a good knockout. Sometimes a fighter crumples on their chest or falls into the ropes, but Williams landed flat on his back. I knew it happened in a good spot but I didn’t have a clue how it would turn out until the film was developed.
Ali was always whispering an exclusive to a journalist – but it was the same exclusive he’d just given to three others!
I was always a little crazy – most photographers don’t hang around the magazine’s photo labs, but I would go to make sure they didn’t mess up my film. I remember seeing this photo come out like it was yesterday. It was still wet, heading for the drying machine, but even then I knew it was special. Today, fighters come into the ring looking like wrestlers. But back in 1966 it was the old tradition: the champion in white trunks, the challenger in black, no logos or sponsors on the ring apron. The symmetry was perfect.
Look closely at the picture and you can see two television microphones hanging down, one near Ali’s head and one near Williams. All Ali had to do was be one foot forward, or Williams could have fallen a yard to his right, and it would have been a lousy shot.
The picture did not get much acclaim straight away; it ran small in Sports Illustrated. But photographers saw it. Ali’s next fight against Ernie Terrell was in the same venue and to my great satisfaction there were three or four photographers all vying to get that same spot on the lighting rig!
Ali was just one of the sweetest human beings you’d ever meet. Ali used to stop at a Jewish nursing home on his way back to Kennedy airport and chat with the old residents there – I went with him once. They’d wind him up saying: ‘You’re not that good, you know, Joe Louis would have knocked you on your ass!” He’d reply: “No way, I’d have had him in two rounds!”
I can count on one hand the athletes I’ve photographed that became social friends, but Muhammad Ali is one of them. We were friends until he died, his wife is still a friend of mine. Even when the Parkinson’s disease was so debilitating he was always available. He had great difficulty carrying on a conversation by the end, but he always liked having friendly faces around.
Did he ever comment on this shot? A couple of times. Whenever anyone asked him about this or the Liston picture, he would say: “Oh, that’s the greatest picture!” But when Howard Bingham showed him his pictures Ali would say, too, “that’s the greatest picture!” He was always whispering an exclusive in a journalist’s ear – but it was the same exclusive he’d just given to three other writers! He loved the camera and he loved every microphone. We’d do a studio shot and he’d say “I’ll give you 20 minutes” – then an hour later he’d still be suggesting poses.
When you get a great picture, over time you start to see tiny things that could make it better – maybe if I came in a little bit tighter, you know? But this picture is nearly 55 years old and, to this day, I’ve never found anything I could have done to make it better. I hit a grand slam home run.
Neil Leifer’s CV
Born: Lower East Side, New York, 1942.
Trained: Self-taught – but I had a wonderful teacher at our camera club at Henry Street Settlement.
Influences: Hy Peskin, John G Zimmerman, Mark Kauffman and Marvin E Newman were my heroes.
High point: “The Ali Liston picture changed my life.”
Low point: “When Ali got knocked down in the Frazier fight in 1974, the referee walked in front of my lens! I put that shot in my book.”
Top tip: “Be prepared. The more you know what the possibilities are, the better.”
• Neil Leifer. Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters is published by Taschen (edition of 1,000) on 7 December.