Sonny Liston landed on canvas below Muhammad Ali’s feet on May 25, 1965, and Neil Leifer snapped a photo
May 22, 2015 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography
The photo languished unlauded—before it was (much later) recognized as one of the greatest sports photos of all time; Ali became the most hated figure in American sports—before he was (much later) named “The Sportsman of the Century”; and Liston was subjected to intense scrutiny—before (not much later) he fizzled into a mostly forgotten footnote.
Like many sports fans, I’d glimpsed this picture for years—in random Ali articles, atop “best of” lists, even on T-shirts—but it wasn’t until doing my own research, excavating layers, that I discovered its most astounding attribute:
Everything you’d initially imagine about the image is wrong.
But first, just look at that photo! It instantly hits your eyes haloed in a corona of potency—structured so soundly as to seem staged, this forceful frieze of physical dominance. The Victor yells, the Loser displays himself vanquished, and the Watchers are all caught in that moment. The kinetic poetry of moving bodies, momentarily frozen, such is the stuff of the best sports photos—this has that.
There are also the incongruities! The Victor, appearing to proclaim dominance, is in fact pleading for the bested man to rise; and, for that matter, there is secretly a second bested rival below Ali; and though this looks like the moment after a vicious put-down punch, the photo was actually preceded by the puniest of blows, a “phantom punch,” as it would later be known—a wispy, theoretical mini-hook that none in attendance even observed. That Crowd so multitudinous that it stretches beyond the horizon line? They were actually the smallest assembled crowd in heavyweight championship history—there to witness a bumbling conclusion, filled with calls that the fix was in. This bout: still boxing’s biggest unsolved mystery. This image: still iconic, even (especially) with the controversy, for a sport as mythologized as it is crooked. Click for full article.