The accident of capturing history

[I’m exploring 100 podcasts and writing what I learn. This is No. 34.]

He was in the right place at the right time.

You can see the others in the background of Neil Leifer’s picture.

Some are taking photos of the back of a young Cassius Clay celebrating over Sonny Liston laying on the canvas. Some are staring at the scene with their cameras down, resigned to the fact that the opportunity passed.

There were four Sports Illustrated photographers at the fight in 1965. Neil was just 22 at the time, and other other senior photographers got to pick their preferred spots first.

Neil was right in front of the scene when Clay knocked Liston down.

He knew he had something good. He had a clear line of sight while the referee wasn’t blocking his view. But it wasn’t until days later in the dark room that he could see what developed. That’s when he knew for sure that his camera was focused and he captured the action shot.

But it wasn’t even featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated back then.

Over the years, his photo of the young Cassius Clay took on a life of its own as his subject’s legend grew and grew and grew. People wanted to remember him the way he was back then.

In 1999, Sports Illustrated put Neil’s photo on the cover and called it the greatest sports picture of the century. It became iconic.

Neil went on to have 170 of his photographs make the Sports Illustrated cover. He chronicled Muhammad Ali’s entire career, from beginning to end. They became friends.

And after Ali died, Neil remembered that night in 1965 when he was in the right place when the time was right.

Neil Leifer talks about his favorite Ali moments on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch.

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