To Be The G.O.A.T., You Must Be “Relentless”

Photo: Neil Leifer (United States, b. 1942). Muhammad Ali reacts after his first round knockout of Sonny Liston during the 1965 World Heavyweight Title fight at St. Dominic’s Arena in Lewiston, Maine, May 25, 1965.

It was one of the most controversial fights in boxing history: Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston, for the 1965 title of WBC Heavyweight Champion. It was a hotly anticipated rematch, one made all the more fervent by recent history. Just a year earlier, Cassius Clay beat Liston and taken the title with a technical knockout. Two days later, Clay publicly announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam and adopted the name Cassius X before taking the name that would make him one of the most famous men on earth on March 6, 1964.

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When the rematch came along, it was more than a boxing match. It was an epic vision of self-liberation. By aligning himself with the practices and politics of the NOI, Ali was vilified. Perhaps that’s why the only thing they could do was deny the facts. Two minutes and twelve seconds. That’s all it took. Midway through the first round, Liston through a left and Ali countered with a right, an “anchor punch” he learned from actor Stepin Fechit, of all folks. Liston went down on his back, rolled over, tried to rise, and fell back again. It was a wrap for Sonny. But you couldn’t tell his fans nothin’. They called it “Phantom Punch Fight” and yelled, “Fix!” sounding like a 1960’s version of Donald Trump.

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Many people in the arena didn’t see the punch. All they saw was Ali, the Greatest of All Time, triumphant. Photographer Neil Leifer (b. 1942) was front row, and the image he captured has become one of the most iconic images of the man, the boxer, the legend. It’s a photograph many consider one of the best sports photos of all time, and one which is included in Neil Leifer: Relentless, on view at Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica, CA, through September 3, 2016. The exhibition is timed with the recent release of a book by the same name published by the University of Texas Press.

Leifer is a singular figure in sports photography, securing his first Sports Illustrated cover in 1962, at the age of 19. Known for taking risks, one of Leifer’s most iconic photographs was made by placing his camera in the rafters of the Houston Astrodome during the 1966 heavyweight title fight between Cleveland Williams and Muhammad Ali, capturing the moment of victory from above, giving us a God’s eye view of the sweet science at its most delectable.

Neil Leifer (United States, b. 1942). Aerial view of Muhammad Ali victorious after round 3, knockout of Cleveland Williams during fight at Astrodome, November 14, 1966.

Neil Leifer (United States, b. 1942). Aerial view of Muhammad Ali victorious after round 3, knockout of Cleveland Williams during fight at Astrodome, November 14, 1966.

Within the course of his fifty-year career, Leifer has photographed 16 Olympic Games, 15 Kentucky Derbies, the first 12 Super Bowls, 4 FIFA World Cups, countless World Series, and every important heavyweight title fight since 1959. He has photographed Muhammad Ali, his favorite subject, on almost 60 different occasions. Ali loved the camera, and the camera loved him—and Leifer’s photographs remind us of the beautiful relationship that we all share as a result of this.

Aristotle observed, “We are what we repeatedly do. Greatness then, is not an act, but a habit,” one that we witness in the life work of masters like Muhammad Ali and Neil Leifer.

Neil Leifer (United States, b. 1942). 1968 Summer Olympics: (L-R) Australia Peter Norman (silver), USA Tommie Smith (gold), and USA John Carlos (bronze) on medal stand during Men's 200M medal presentation at Estadio Olimpico. Smith and Carlos wearing black gloves and raising fist for racial equality in USA. Black Power salute., October 16, 1968.

Neil Leifer (United States, b. 1942). 1968 Summer Olympics: (L-R) Australia Peter Norman (silver), USA Tommie Smith (gold), and USA John Carlos (bronze) on medal stand during Men’s 200M medal presentation at Estadio Olimpico. Smith and Carlos wearing black gloves and raising fist for racial equality in USA. Black Power salute., October 16, 1968.

All photos: ©Neil Leifer/Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.