The Power of Sports Photography

50 years ago on May 25, 1965, Muhammad Ali fought Sonny Liston in a rematch for the heavyweight title. Ali was captured by photographer Neil Leifer after knocking down Liston in the first round, cowering over Liston while shouting “Get Up and Fight, Sucker”. The former champ, Charles “Sonny” Liston, had fallen quickly to the canvas on a punch some said was “phantom” without real power. The controversy surrounding the legitimacy of the fall of Liston will never be fully answered. But the image of an all-time great sports photography moment lives forever. It captures the youth and intensity of the young Ali’s boxing career, and, though he’d fight for a few more years, the symbolic end of Liston’s. Interestingly Ali did not hold his arm stiffly in this pose, it was merely “caught” as Ali quickly made a snap punching motion across his body. And while it has been recognized as one the “greatest 100 sports photos of the century” it was not Sports Illustrated’s cover of the week nor did it win photo awards in 1965. Obviously the legend of this famous photo grew over time.

The 2nd Ali-Liston fight had been moved from Boston and was hastily rescheduled to a small arena in Lewiston, Maine with a small heavyweight championship fight attendance (2400). And these attendees didn’t get much value for their boxing ticket dollar as the fight ended in the first round. The fight was a rematch of the first Ali-Liston fight in Miami February 1964 when the 22-year old Ali (then Cassius Clay) “shocked the world” as a 7-1 underdog and became the heavyweight champ. Liston was reportedly 32 at that time though many questioned whether he was closer to 40.

The boxing world was different 50 years ago. No multi-million dollar payouts. No pay per view at home (though often fights were shown on closed circuit at movie theaters). However, the fights of that era and the 70s and 80s were true clashes of boxing titans, unmatched in today’s boxing world. The recent Pacquiao-Mayweather fight pales in comparison to the true great fights.

Back in the late 50s and early 60s, ex-con Sonny Liston was the “baddest man on the planet”. Mike Tyson was nothing compared to Liston, other than they both shared criminal records. Liston’s 3 fights prior to the first Clay (Ali) fight all ended in first round knockouts, and Liston had been an overwhelming favorite in the first fight, which I listened to on radio, not live, but merely round by round recaps.

Liston’s shocking loss to Clay in 1964 and subsequent first round loss in the rematch in May 1965 effectively ended Liston’s career though he would continue to fight until the late 60s. Liston would be found dead in his home in January 1971 and the date of his mysterious death was ruled to be December 30, 1970. The cause of death was reported to be a heroin overdose though it was also rumored that Liston was murdered.

Sonny Liston, the baddest man, on the planet was not so bad on May 25, 1965. He will forever be remembered as lying beneath a young Muhammad Ali in one of the great sports photos of all time.

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