How Things Break

The Iowa Review - - FRONT PAGE - Dave mondy

Sonny Lis­ton landed on can­vas be­low Muham­mad Ali’s feet on May 25, 1965, and Neil Leifer snapped a photo: Af­ter­ward, sev­eral events un­spooled: The photo lan­guished un­lauded—be­fore it was (much later) voted The Best Sports Photo of the Cen­tury; 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 (overly) ob­ses­sive re­search, ex­ca­vat­ing lay­ers, that I dis­cov­ered its most as­tound­ing at­tribute: Ev­ery­thing you’d ini­tially imag­ine about the im­age is wrong. But first: What a photo! If it doesn’t in­stantly hit your eyes haloed in a corona of po­tency—struc­tured so soundly as to seem staged, this force­ful frieze of phys­i­cal dom­i­nance—i don’t know what to say. Look at it: The Vic­tor yells, The Loser dis­plays him­self van­quished, and The Watch­ers (The Press clos­est, The Crowd be­hind) 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. But then: the in­con­gruities! The Vic­tor, ap­pear­ing to pro­claim dom­i­nance, is in fact plead­ing for the bested man to rise; and, for that mat­ter, there are se­cretly two bested ri­vals be­low Ali, not one; and though this looks like the mo­ment af­ter a vi­cious put-down punch, the photo was ac­tu­ally pre­ceded by the puni­est of blows, a scan­dal, 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. Yes, what ap­pears to be an ex­cla­ma­tion point is in­stead an el­lip­sis . . . an el­lip­sis that, the fur­ther I fol­lowed it, fer­ried me through Fitzgerald­ish fugue states—but I’m get­ting ahead of my­self. As men­tioned: on May 25, 1965, Neil Leifer snapped a photo.

1. The Photo

Neil Leifer must’ve been crest­fallen—how could he help it? He snapped The Shot of the bout—knew it—but could only watch while other pho­tos filled the prom­i­nent pages of Sports Il­lus­trated, his own work buried in the back. Leifer must’ve been crest­fallen be­cause he’d taken an artis­tic risk that night in May. Specif­i­cally, he went out and loaded Kodak’s lat­est Ek­tachrome film into his Rollei­flex medium for­mat—which is an overly tech­ni­cal way of say­ing that, of all the pho­tog­ra­phers crammed around the ring, Leifer held quite a dis­tinc­tion: he was one of only two shoot­ing in color.

Leifer was known for ex­ces­sive prepa­ra­tions—this night was no dif­fer­ent—but how­ever early he’d ar­rived to the fight, he was bumped off his pre­ferred side of the ring by Herb Scharf­man, a se­nior pho­tog­ra­pher at Sports Il­lus­trated. Scharf­man wanted the spot by the judges’ ta­ble—it made for eas­ier mid­fight ma­neu­ver­ing—so Leifer, the twenty-two-yearold striver at Sports Il­lus­trated, had to de­fer. A dif­fi­cult task was made more dif­fi­cult. There was a rea­son few folks shot in color: if the light didn’t splash just right, ex­po­sure ex­actly ac­cu­rate, it was all too easy to grab an im­age marginally col­orized, washed out, the pic­ture plopped in the muddy midground be­tween color and mono­chrome, reap­ing the ben­e­fits of nei­ther. To cap­ture the color, Leifer had rigged spe­cial flash units over the ring, but this led to a big­ger chal­lenge: Leifer had one shot. The other pho­tog­ra­phers bran­dished the equiv­a­lent of semi-au­to­mat­ics whilst he held a sniper ri­fle. Leifer’s strobes needed time to recharge, which meant he couldn’t click and click. When­ever a fighter fell, the other pho­tog­ra­phers could quick-twitch their shut­ters, but Leifer had to pick one mo­ment, ar­tis­ti­cally ap­ing the sniper’s motto: one shot, one kill. None­the­less, Leifer man­aged the risks and got the great shot— got it, knew it—but couldn’t get it to stick. Not in the minds of his ed­i­tors, at least. Even­tu­ally, many months af­ter that is­sue of Sports Il­lus­trated had been con­signed to the stacks, an edi­tor es­pied the im­age again and thought it worth con­sid­er­a­tion. He sub­mit­ted it to the pres­ti­gious “Pic­tures of the Year” con­test—the Os­cars for pho­tog­ra­phers. But there, too, the photo failed. What would later be voted as the best sports photo of the cen­tury couldn’t con­jure an hon­or­able men­tion.


“Luck in sports pho­tog­ra­phy is ev­ery­thing,” Leifer would say later, “but what sep­a­rates the re­ally top sports pho­tog­ra­pher from the or­di­nary is that when they get lucky, they don’t miss.” When they get lucky, they don’t miss. Leifer didn’t miss that day—but he cer­tainly got lucky. If Scharf­man hadn’t booted the young­ster to the op­po­site side, Leifer would’ve been stuck be­hind Ali at the big mo­ment. Op­po­site sides of the ring, like op­po­site sides of a coin, just ran­dom chance—but when Lis­ton fell, he fell in front of Leifer, not Scharf­man. “It didn’t mat­ter how good Her­bie was that day,” Leifer said. “He was in the wrong seat.” In­stead of snap-

ping a his­toric photo, Scharf­man be­came part of one. The bald­ing man be­tween Ali’s legs? That’s Herb Scharf­man, Leifer’s ri­val: But Leifer wasn’t just lucky. Sit­ting next to him on fight night, also on that “lucky” side, was an AP pho­tog­ra­pher, John Rooney. Rooney had al­most the same po­si­tion as Leifer and snapped this photo (which may ini­tially seem iden­ti­cal, but note that Scharf­man is to the left of Ali): Not a bad photo at all—good enough, in fact, to go out on the wire and be fea­tured on front pages through­out the coun­try. But look at both pic­tures. What makes only one iconic? Partly (as noted by pho­tog­ra­phy edi-

tor David Schonauer), it’s the color and clar­ity of Leifer’s Ek­tra­chrome over Rooney’s black-and-white Tri-x film. Sim­i­larly, there’s Leifer’s Rollei­flex cam­era, as op­posed to Rooney’s 35mm Slr—which is a jar­gony way of say­ing that Leifer ended up with a big square, not Rooney’s rec­tan­gle. Look at both frames—isn’t the square es­sen­tial? Its solid struc­ture sup­ports, re­flects Ali’s strength; more im­por­tantly, it cap­tures the black­ness above the man. What is it about that space above Ali—there with Leifer, lack­ing with Rooney—that seems to be the very dif­fer­ence be­tween Good and Great? Rooney’s photo is cramped, quick; it de­liv­ers all its in­for­ma­tion im­me­di­ately, force­fully. Leifer’s photo con­veys the same power but lets us linger, our eyes al­lowed to stroll around the stage. Maybe it’s as sim­ple as ad­her­ence to the old com­po­si­tion dic­tum, the Rule of Thirds (briefly: if one were to di­vide any photo hor­i­zon­tally into three rows and ver­ti­cally into three col­umns, most of the ma­jor men­tal lines, the rule sug­gests, should fall on those di­vides). The bot­tom row slices just over Scharf­man’s head, the sec­ond above Ali’s hair, leav­ing that top row of blank black. It lets us con­sider Ali within his world. He seems all the more strong, ar­che­typal, for such space. And, di­vid­ing the im­age into col­umns, the cen­ter is brack­eted by Sonny Lis­ton’s knee on one side and his eyes on the other, both aimed sky­ward. Our fo­cus is drawn to the downed man, then shot back up to the vic­tor. But maybe a beau­ti­ful im­age shouldn’t be bi­sected by sophistry—like the E.B. White quote com­par­ing com­edy to a frog: To dis­sect it is to kill it. The ge­nius might be as sim­ple as Leifer’s tim­ing. Once more, look at the two im­ages—look at Ali’s ex­pres­sion. Such a slight change, telling us the pho­tos were snapped mil­lisec­onds apart. Surely the su­pe­ri­or­ity of Leifer’s mo­ment is mere luck—no one could cal­i­brate such a quick click, right? But those same semisec­onds are the twitchy dif­fer­ence be­tween hit­ting a home run or rou­tine foul, be­tween slip­ping a jab or tak­ing it on the chin. We credit ath­letes for their split sec­onds—in­stinct helm­ing the con­trols of con­scious­ness—so why not the same for the folks pho­tograph­ing them? “Whether that’s in­stinc­tual or whether that’s just luck,” Leifer said when forced to con­jec­ture, “I don’t know.” Sounds like the hum­ble, postgame eva­sion of any ath­lete. When they get lucky, they don’t miss. No, but they may have to wait to see what they’ve hit. Rooney, on a daily dead­line, sent off his pho­tos im­me­di­ately; Leifer, work­ing for a weekly, slipped his un­de­vel­oped film into his pocket in the morn­ing and took a flight to New York. Upon land­ing, he saw Rooney’s pic­ture al­ready inked on newsprint—“in one of the Maine news­pa­pers,”

Leifer re­called, “or maybe it was the Bos­ton Globe. I hadn’t even seen my pho­tos of the fight yet, so when I saw Rooney’s I was pretty happy; I knew that at least I was sit­ting on the right side of the ring.” And once Leifer de­vel­oped his film, he was even hap­pier. “If I were di­rect­ing a movie and I could tell Ali where to knock him down and Sonny where to fall, they’re ex­actly where I would put them.” And yet, how­ever cin­e­mat­i­cally staged, recog­ni­tion would wait. Rooney’s photo won the 1965 World Press Photo Prize for the best sports pic­ture—though, now, Rooney and his photo are mostly for­got­ten. In­deed, when Rooney’s photo shows up on­line, it’s usu­ally at­trib­uted to Leifer, as­sumed by peo­ple per­form­ing a quick scan to be a black-and-white cropped copy of the great, big orig­i­nal. Leifer’s photo grew in fame slowly, only as Ali’s fame grew. Leifer at­tributes it to peo­ple’s ad­mi­ra­tion for Ali, af­ter he was forced to for­feit the prime of his ca­reer be­cause of his po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism. “This photo shows Ali at the height of his pow­ers,” Leifer said. “Peo­ple wanted to re­mem­ber him at his best.” Leifer and Ali were alike in this way, both re­mem­bered for their pro­fes­sional heights (Leifer would go on to be­come one of the greats of his pro­fes­sion, mak­ing the cover of SI over 150 times and the cover of Life over 40), un­like poor Scharf­man, a man known for much of his life as be­ing at the very top of his pro­fes­sion, but now mostly noted— when noted at all—as the an­swer to a trivia ques­tion, a joke. The man be­tween Ali’s legs. How aptly, then, he matches the man di­rectly be­low him in the photo, Scharf­man’s chin al­most upon Lis­ton’s thigh.

2. The Fight­ers

It’s hard to imag­ine a man more memo­ri­al­ized for be­ing the op­po­site of what he was, at least for ninety-five per­cent of his life, than Sonny Lis­ton. He was the most fright­en­ing, the most pun­ish­ing boxer in over a gen­er­a­tion. The sport had been in a slow swoon since the re­tire­ment of Rocky Mar­ciano over twenty years previous, and though Sonny Lis­ton didn’t have the prop­erly pale pig­ment to cap­ture the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion like ol’ Rock from Brock­ton, a.k.a. The Brock­ton Bomber (a.k.a. it sad­dens me we’ll never have nick­names quite like this again), Lis­ton re­vived pugilis­tic pas­sion in a new way: ev­ery­one loved to hate Lis­ton. Even in a sport de­fined by vi­o­lence piled upon vi­o­lence, Lis­ton’s bru­tal­ity stood out—both within and with­out the ring. Lis­ton was ar­rested nine­teen times, and, save for a few mob-con­nected money-laun­der­ing charges, the ar­rests were all of the fists-on-flesh va­ri­ety. In a fa­mous in­ci­dent, five cops jumped Lis­ton, beat­ing him about the head and neck un­til “they broke their hick­ory night­sticks”— and they still couldn’t get cuffs on him. In a more car­toon­ish in­frac­tion,

Lis­ton de­posited a cop head­first into a trash can. And there was the time Lis­ton took away the gun of an ar­rest­ing of­fi­cer—lis­ton broke the guy’s knee, then strode from the scene wear­ing the cop­per’s hat. Lis­ton’s fists each mea­sured fif­teen inches around. For ref­er­ence, a soft­ball is eleven inches around; so take that soft­ball and in­flate it an ex­tra third in size, stick that on the end of your wrist, and pro­pel it for­ward with some of the big­gest bi­ceps on record—and then you can un­der­stand what Sonny Lis­ton was slap­ping peo­ple around with. He had no trou­ble get­ting at those folks, ei­ther, with a reach of eighty-four inches, the sec­ond long­est in heavy­weight his­tory. Our un­der­stand­ing of ad­jec­tives dic­tates that a thing can be ei­ther long or squat, but Lis­ton’s arms were some­how both—ag­ile tree trunks, lithe rail­road ties. Such was his rep­u­ta­tion that many heavy­weights re­fused to fight him; he was the per­fect fright­en­ing fighter to ex­cite loathing in white crowds. But not just white crowds. When Floyd Pat­ter­son, the champ be­fore Lis­ton, fi­nally agreed to fight Sonny, the NAACP met with Lis­ton, try­ing to per­suade him not to go through with it. They were afraid of the clichéd crim­i­nal im­age that Lis­ton would present to Cau­casian America. But Lis­ton went ahead and faced long­time champ Pat­ter­son and pasted him in the first round. Lis­ton be­came the champ, though he’d al­ways say the NAACP re­jec­tion re­ally hurt him. A lot of things hurt the very pri­vate Lis­ton that he didn’t let on about. For ex­am­ple, when he re­turned to his home­town, the proudly pro­vin­cial Philadel­phia, there was no cel­e­bra­tion; the town hated him. A prom­i­nent lo­cal scribe sug­gested, “Emily Post would rec­om­mend ticker tape pa­rade. For con­fetti we can use his ar­rest war­rants.” Lis­ton be­came more and more with­drawn. He was the twenty-fourth of twenty-five chil­dren, all of whom had been beaten mer­ci­lessly by their fa­ther. Though he didn’t like talk­ing about it, when a trainer once asked him about all the scars on his back, Lis­ton said, “I had bad deal­ings with my daddy.” In his early teens, Lis­ton es­caped to Chicago with his mother and boxed for their sur­vival. He never learned to read or write. Af­ter his lack of ac­cep­tance af­ter his ti­tle, buoyed by in­se­cu­ri­ties from a lack of ed­u­ca­tion, he sunk fur­ther and fur­ther into his Mafia con­nec­tions. At the time of the Ali bout, Sonny was liv­ing full-time in a Ve­gas casino con­nected, like his man­ager, to Mob men. None of this en­deared him to the pop­u­lace, but it also didn’t make them lose re­spect for his power within the ring. At the time he fought Muham­mad Ali (ini­tially known as Cas­sius Clay, but we’ll get to that later), Lis­ton went off as a seven-to-one fa­vorite. For the nongam­blers out there, that means that in or­der to win $100 off a Lis­ton vic­tory, you’d have to put down $700. Al­ter­nately, you

could win $700 by bet­ting only $100, as­sum­ing you were bet­ting on Ali. But no one was. Muham­mad Ali was a cocky kid who’d re­cently won Olympic gold in Athens, but at the time of the fight, he wasn’t even the sec­ond-rated fighter in the world. He could dance, he could dodge, but ev­ery­one knew he couldn’t take a punch.


It’s tempt­ing to view past events as hav­ing been in­evitable; it’s hard, at least sub­con­sciously, not to laugh into one’s col­lar about all those so-called “ex­perts” who dis­missed Muham­mad Ali. Muham­mad Ali, of all peo­ple! Ha! But of course, he wasn’t Muham­mad Ali then. He was a kid named Cas­sius Clay, highly untested, and they were right to doubt him. If you have a fa­vorite sports com­men­ta­tor (ad­mit­tedly, to many that will seem like hav­ing a fa­vorite canker sore), that per­son would’ve picked Lis­ton, too. And that com­men­ta­tor would have had good rea­son. I re­cently Youtubed Ali’s fight with Bri­tish champ Henry Cooper, which di­rectly pre­ceded the bout with Lis­ton. At the end of the fourth round, Cooper catches Ali with a cool, clean left (“Enry’s ’Am­mer” it was called in Brit­s­peak), and down goes Ali. He’s tan­gled in bot­tom ropes, eyes rolled back—bell rings! Ali stum­bles to his cor­ner, slack on his stool, slapped by han­dlers. “Doesn’t know where he is!” the an­nouncer ex­claims. Ali keeps try­ing to open his eyes wide like a child mock­ing sur­prise, then sluffs off. The man­ager grabs smelling salts (tech­ni­cally il­le­gal un­der Bri­tish rules), and Ali snaps to. Bell clangs. Ali floats, then, midring, and sim­ply sort of de­stroys Cooper—it’s strange to watch. Ali’s move­ments are loose and ca­sual as he re­peat­edly, specif­i­cally pun­ishes a spot to the up­per left of Cooper’s eye socket un­til it swells grotesquely. Be­tween sepia-toned cam­era shots, some­thing in Cooper’s face breaks and there’s blood ev­ery­where. A lo­cal ref is slow to stop the fight. Cooper throws his arms around Ali—blood streaks and smears ev­ery­where—the an­nouncer says, “Ap­palling. That’s the worst cut eye I’ve seen.” Then the ref calls it. Ali vic­to­ri­ous. And yet, if Enry’s ’Am­mer had landed thirty sec­onds sooner, it seems ob­vi­ous that Ali wouldn’t have been saved by the bell. Which means he would’ve been knocked out. Which means he wouldn’t have been un­de­feated. Which means Ali wouldn’t have had the chance to face Lis­ton, which means—pretty much—he never would’ve be­come Muham­mad Ali. Does this mean Ali wasn’t re­ally one of the great­est heavy­weights of all time? Nope. It just means that even in sports—where a per­son (me)

trea­sures the re­duc­tion of all the ques­tions and com­pli­ca­tions of nor­mal life to sim­ple, fi­nite num­bers, easy to an­a­lyze—it turns out that Luck is still un­com­fort­ably King. As true for Ali as Leifer, Lis­ton as Scharf­man.

None­the­less, Ali did get lucky, did get his chance, and he was ready— like in Leifer’s mantra, he didn’t miss his shot. On Fe­bru­ary 24, 1964, Ali de­feated Lis­ton in seven and stormed around the ring pro­claim­ing (ac­cu­rately) that he’d “shocked the world!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I apol­o­gize for the quan­tity of ex­cla­ma­tion points there, in that it’s an in­ad­e­quate num­ber to rep­re­sent his ex­u­ber­ance, but gen­eral print­ing costs pre­vent me from show­ing Ali as he was, so open-throt­tled with his trade­mark combo of the ar­tic­u­late and out­landish. Youtube him your­self, watch him right af­ter the fight; even his clos­est han­dlers, who love him, want to put their hands over his mouth to stop the spout­ing. Taunt­ing the press: “I’m so pretty!” “I’m a bad man!” “I talk to god.. . the real god!” “I don’t have a mark on my face, and I just up­set Sonny Lis­ton, and I just turned twenty-two years old— I must be the great­est!” These quotes ex­press his bravado, yes, but not his wit.



Ex­cerpt from “Sonny Lis­ton Poem” by Muham­mad Ali, de­liv­ered to the me­dia the night be­fore the big fight:

Clay swings with his left, Clay swings with his right, Look at young Cas­sius carry the fight. Lis­ton keeps back­ing, but there’s not enough room, It’s a mat­ter of time till Clay low­ers the boom. Now Clay lands with a right, what a beau­ti­ful swing, And the punch raises the Bear clean out of the ring. Lis­ton is still ris­ing and the ref wears a frown, For he can’t start count­ing till Sonny goes down. Now Lis­ton is dis­ap­pear­ing from view, the crowd is go­ing fran­tic, But radar sta­tions have picked him up, some­where over the At­lantic. Who would have thought when they came to the fight? That they’d wit­ness the launch­ing of a hu­man satel­lite. Yes, the crowd did not dream, when they put up the money, That they would see a to­tal eclipse of the Sonny.

Though Lis­ton didn’t ac­tu­ally en­ter or­bit, the poet was oth­er­wise cor­rect in his pre­dic­tions.

But that still doesn’t show Ali’s ac­tual in­tel­lect, his force of char­ac­ter—and America didn’t see it that night, ei­ther. For one evening, the box­ing pub­lic got to revel in the story of a con­fi­dent up­start, the fresh­faced Olympian who beat the bad­der (blacker) man. Ali was man­aged by a group of wealthy Ken­tucky busi­ness­men, an old-boy net­work, and he was hand­some and light-skinned. With­out a Great White Hope, Muham­mad Ali was the next best thing. Or rather, Cas­sius Clay. Time to set this straight. Cas­sius Clay was his birth name—a great box­ing name, and the name he ini­tially made fa­mous. But un­be­knownst to the gen­eral pub­lic, be­fore the Lis­ton bout, Clay be­came a mem­ber of the Na­tion of Is­lam. Young Cas­sius se­lected a new name—cas­sius X, af­ter Malcolm X—but that ap­pel­la­tion was ve­toed (though it’s fun, just for a mo­ment, to imag­ine all the places you’ve seen the name “Muham­mad Ali”—from Sport­scen­ter to T-shirts—and re­place it with “Cas­sius X”); in­stead, he was given the name we now know him by. And the very morn­ing af­ter his big Lis­ton vic­tory, Cas­sius Clay an­nounced that he was chang­ing his name to Muham­mad Ali—a rad­i­cal name from rad­i­cal Is­lam. He might as well have an­nounced fealty to Malcolm X and out­right op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War! Which he soon did. And just like that, pub­lic opin­ion flipped. The day be­fore, Lis­ton had been the bad­die, but now ev­ery­one wished he’d won. A sim­ple equa­tion, it turned out: the one thing the pub­lic hated more than a crim­i­nal black man was a cocky black man with rad­i­cal pol­i­tics. A re­match was set—and then de­layed be­cause of back­room ne­go­ti­a­tions. Then the venue fell through. Then Ali had to have emer­gency her­nia surgery. Mean­while, much of the pub­lic couldn’t wait to see Ali get pounded. Fi­nally, a last-minute ne­go­ti­a­tion was reached: they would fight in St. Do­minic’s Arena, in the tiny town of Lewis­ton, Maine, on May 25, 1965.



How anti-cli­mac­tic that fight was—the fight fea­tured in Leifer’s photo—af­ter so much buildup. “A two-minute fight might be a ma­jor dis­ap­point­ment for the fans, but for a pho­tog­ra­pher, it doesn’t mat­ter

whether it goes fif­teen rounds or fif­teen sec­onds,” Leifer said. “All any edi­tor ex­pected from me was a great knock­out pic­ture.” Leifer got the pic­ture, but the fans got a supremely dis­ap­point­ing bout. Mid­way through the first round, Lis­ton fell to the can­vas, even though he seemed to have dodged Ali’s punch, and no wit­nesses on-site could say they saw Ali con­nect. None­the­less, with Lis­ton sud­denly and in­ex­pli­ca­bly down, ref­eree Joe Wal­cott or­dered Ali to re­treat to a neu­tral cor­ner. Ali re­fused; in­stead, he stood over his fallen op­po­nent, ges­tur­ing and yelling, “Get up and fight, sucker!” Ali wanted a clean vic­tory—and this smelled fishy—but no mat­ter; be­fore any­one knew what was go­ing on, Wal­cott de­clared Ali the vic­tor, and the fight was over. “Get up and fight, sucker!” This was the “tri­umphant” mo­ment that Leifer’s photo cap­tured. So why did this im­age, in­stead of the oth­ers snapped of Ali, be­come the most iconic? “You have to un­der­stand, a lot of pic­tures aren’t ap­pre­ci­ated when they’re first taken and then later they get a life of their own,” Leifer would say. “This photo be­came the way peo­ple wanted to see Ali, charis­matic, tough, con­fi­dent. The cir­cum­stances didn’t end up mat­ter­ing.” Of course, they did mat­ter that day, May 25. The end of that fight re­mains one of the most con­tro­ver­sial in box­ing his­tory. The blow that ended the match be­came known as “the phan­tom punch.” Even Ali was un­sure as to whether or not he’d con­nected; footage from the event shows Ali, as he ex­its the arena, ask­ing his en­tourage, “Did I hit him?” Slow-mo­tion re­plays seem to show that Ali did in­deed con­nect with a quick, chop­ping right to Lis­ton’s head (known later as the “An­chor Punch”) as Lis­ton was mov­ing to­ward him—but most agree that it wasn’t pow­er­ful enough to take down a big boxer like Sonny. So did Lis­ton take a dive? He was cer­tainly mob-con­nected. Ru­mors per­sist to this day, though for ev­ery quote to sup­port one the­ory, there’s a coun­terquote to sup­port the op­po­site. Whole books have been de­voted to var­i­ous sides of the de­bate, writ­ten by au­thors who are ei­ther Tire­lessly Re­search­ing Cru­saders or Con­spir­acy Nuts, de­pend­ing on which the­ory you sup­port. Fi­nan­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tions have shown that nei­ther Lis­ton nor his wife ever prof­ited—out­side of the orig­i­nal purse money—from the fight. Some claim that Lis­ton al­ready owed a bunch of money to the Mafia, and by tak­ing a con­ve­nient dive, he sim­ply paid off his debt. But if Lis­ton was un­der the con­trol of the Mob, it’s hard to imag­ine they’d want Ali to be the champ, a man they didn’t con­trol—but again, who knows? An equally pop­u­lar the­ory is that Lis­ton was fright­ened into tak­ing a fall by the Na­tion of Is­lam. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Na­tion met with

Lis­ton sev­eral weeks be­fore the fight. No one knows what was said in that meet­ing, but some spec­u­late that they threat­ened Lis­ton. The group cer­tainly was mil­i­tant and broke into some­times vi­o­lent fac­tions—malcolm X had been as­sas­si­nated just a few months be­fore the fight. Lis­ton sup­pos­edly told one bi­og­ra­pher that this is why he went down, fear of as­sas­si­na­tion, but he gave other in­ter­view­ers con­tra­dic­tory quotes. Again, who knows?

Leifer, for his part, seems to fall on the side of an Ali knock­out, but he also con­fesses, “I can’t tell you that I saw the punch that put Lis­ton down.” At the least, most seem to agree that Ali wasn’t fac­ing the Lis­ton of past years. One New York Times writer noted that Lis­ton “looked aw­ful” in pre­fight work­outs and re­ported that Lis­ton’s han­dlers had been se­cretly pay­ing his spar­ring part­ner one hun­dred dol­lars to take it easy on the big man. Lis­ton’s han­dlers knew “he didn’t have it any­more.” “The truth is,” Leifer con­tin­ued, “I haven’t seen the knock­out punch in half the great fights I’ve cov­ered. You’re think­ing of strobe lights, bat­ter­ies, and so many other things.” But even if he didn’t care much about that fa­mous punch, Leifer cared a great deal about Ali. In­deed, though Leifer would go on to be­come one of the most noted sports pho­tog­ra­phers of his gen­er­a­tion (as I’ve said, he’d end up mak­ing the cover of Sports Il­lus­trated over 150 times) and a great pho­tog­ra­pher in gen­eral (mak­ing the cover of Time over fifty times), Leifer al­ways counted Ali as his fa­vorite sub­ject. The day of that phan­tom punch in Lewis­ton, Maine, was just the early phase of a re­la­tion­ship be­tween pho­tog­ra­pher and sub­ject that con­tin­ues to this day. Leifer has pho­tographed Ali in over thirty-five fights and at twenty sep­a­rate photo shoots. “There has never been an ath­lete like Ali, and I was lucky enough that my ca­reer and his ca­reer par­al­leled,” Leifer said in a re­cent in­ter­view, talk­ing of how the two still stay in touch. “We are a year apart in age. He turned sev­enty a year ago Jan­uary, and I spent four days with him in Ari­zona where he’s liv­ing.” Leifer doesn’t shoot pho­to­graphs any­more; he’s turned en­tirely to film­mak­ing—though there re­mains one sub­ject for whom he’d shoot a still im­age. “I’d pho­to­graph Ali any­time.”



And as for Ali and the phan­tom punch? Yes, he’d wanted a cleaner vic­tory—but Ali was soon able to leave the scan­dal be­hind him. His to­tal dom­i­nance of the sport over the next sev­eral years put to rest any ques­tions about the pu­rity of his as­cen­dance. He be­came one of the great­est box­ers—and, most likely, the great­est boxer—of the mod­ern era. Soon af­ter his fight in Lewis­ton, Ali would be­come em­broiled in con­tro­ver­sies that made the Lis­ton fall seem small. When the U.S. mil­i­tary drafted Ali, he ob­jected (Leifer was there to pho­to­graph Ali re­fus­ing his draft or­der), and Ali was promptly ar­rested. He then be­came a ma­jor speaker in the protest move­ment, where his in­tel­lect and wit served him well. One of Ali’s most fa­mous quotes from that era, ex­plain­ing why he wouldn’t fight in the Viet­nam War: “Why should they ask me to put on a uni­form and go ten thou­sand miles from home and drop bombs and bul­lets on brown peo­ple in Viet­nam while so-called Ne­gro peo­ple in Louisville are treated like dogs and de­nied sim­ple hu­man rights?” And also there’s this quote: “I ain’t got no quar­rel with them Viet Cong... . They never called me nig­ger.” Such was the at­mos­phere at the time, and such was the at­mos­phere in which the ma­jor box­ing com­mis­sions stripped Ali of all his box­ing ti­tles, so that dur­ing the very prime of his ath­letic years, Ali was not al­lowed to prac­tice his sport. But that’s a dif­fer­ent saga. The point is, by then, the Sonny scan­dal had been long over­shad­owed—the prov­ince of ob­ses­sive the­o­rists.


The pri­mary source, the only man who could re­ally con­firm or deny any of the the­o­ries about the phan­tom punch, was found dead in his Las Ve­gas home on Jan­uary 5, 1971. Sonny Lis­ton was found by his wife, who’d been away, and it was es­ti­mated that he had al­ready been dead for five days. An au­topsy re­vealed that the cause of Lis­ton’s death was a heroin over­dose; though Lis­ton had never been known to do heroin, he was abus­ing a lot of other chem­i­cals at the time, and it wasn’t a stretch to imag­ine that he had branched out. Also, the po­lice de­ter­mined that there were no signs of foul play. Still, some won­der. No drug or heroin para­pher­na­lia was found in­side the house, and also there’s this: Big Sonny had one life­long fear—an al­most cute pho­bia for a man so im­pos­ing, if it hadn’t been such a truly crip­pling ter­ror, a fear that, even when he badly needed the money, kept him from fight­ing in Europe sim­ply be­cause it would’ve re­quired him to get vac­ci­na­tions—a

pho­bia that would make Lis­ton, bru­tal Lis­ton, lit­er­ally flee a doc­tor’s ex­am­i­na­tion room. Sonny Lis­ton had a life­long fear of nee­dles.

3. The Fi­nale

So there’s this poem by Richard Ka­trovas, and part of the sec­ond stanza goes,

A man—a fool and so a man— will likely suf­fer for his man­hood as a boxer suf­fers for his bread. What is more beau­ti­ful, more true to who we are (for what we are) than fight­ers, spent, em­brac­ing all that each had tried to mur­der from the first bell to the last, and what may of­fer greater hope for us, for some of us, than that em­brace?

Though the mas­cu­line anguish may be la­dled on a bit thick, I con­fess that I love that part about the box­ers’ em­brace. It’s al­ways struck me as such a touch­ing mo­ment in the sport. It’s called a “clinch” and gen­er­ally hap­pens when a boxer needs rest or re­lief from the op­po­nent’s blows, and the end of the round isn’t close enough to save him. The boxer wraps his arms around his op­po­nent, hug­ging him, so punches can only land on his back. But some­times, at the end of a par­tic­u­larly long and bru­tal bout, it al­most doesn’t mat­ter who starts the clinch—once one boxer goes for it, they both seem to fall into it, sus­tain it, both need the respite; they lean on one another, and if ei­ther were to move away quickly, the other would fall; yet they don’t move away; for a very short time, they lean into each other like lovers at the end of a par­tic­u­larly slow dance—maybe it’s the last song at the wed­ding. See­ing such a clinch, one won­ders just how pro­foundly tired an ath­lete has to be to rest chest-to-chest, even for a mo­ment, against the man he’s spent months pre­par­ing to bru­tal­ize. So I won­der if, maybe, Sonny Lis­ton was tired. So tired. Of be­ing tired. He might’ve taken a dive be­cause of the Na­tion of Is­lam, he might’ve taken a dive be­cause of the Mafia, or maybe there wasn’t a dive at all, just an un­for­tu­nate stum­ble and bum­bling of­fi­cials. But if Lis­ton did take a dive, maybe it was an in­ter­nal dive, taken at some un­known time days or months be­fore the fight.

He was promised a $1.2 mil­lion purse for his first fight with Clay, and yet when his Mafia pay­mas­ters cut the check, it was for just $13,000. They said the rest went to fees for his pub­lic­ity, his “free” stay at the ho­tel, his restau­rant and bar tab, et cetera; the Mob was lever­ag­ing their tax. For the re­match, Sonny Lis­ton was once again promised around $1.2 mil­lion, and be­fore the fight, he once again re­ceived, in­stead, $13,000. Some­where, in­ter­nally, I won­der if Lis­ton just said fuck it. I don’t mean he walked into that ring in Lewis­ton think­ing, I’m tak­ing a dive. I mean some­thing deeper down wanted to take a dive, even as his con­scious self tried to fight for vic­tory. Some­thing like what F. Scott Fitzger­ald writes of in The Crack-up, when—cu­ri­ously enough—he em­ploys a pugilis­tic metaphor:

Of course all life is a process of break­ing down, but the blows that do the dra­matic side of the work—the big sud­den blows that come, or seem to come, from out­side—the ones you re­mem­ber and blame things on and, in mo­ments of weak­ness, tell your friends about, don’t show their ef­fect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel un­til it’s too late to do any­thing about it, un­til you re­al­ize with fi­nal­ity that in some re­gard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of break­age seems to hap­pen quick—the sec­ond kind hap­pens al­most with­out your know­ing it but is re­al­ized sud­denly in­deed.

The more I re­searched this fa­mous photo, the more these two pieces of lit­er­a­ture kept butting in on my thoughts: the Ka­trovas poem and the Fitzger­ald pas­sage. Who knows the prove­nance of per­sis­tent sub­thoughts—but with Lis­ton as a sub­ject, these phrases do make sense. Ear­lier in his poem, Ka­trovas de­scribes bru­tal­ity as “the pain of fa­ther’s belt,” and Sonny knew that pain more than most; knew, too, about a “large boy’s knuck­les,” since Sonny’s own knuck­les mea­sured freak­ishly large; yet, he also knew that re­gard­less of a boy’s knuckle size, “life kicks his ass.” Cer­tainly Sonny un­der­stood how “a boxer suf­fers for his bread.” None­the­less, for maybe a last time, he whipped him­self into shape to face Ali early in ’65—and then Ali had a her­nia, the match was put off for another six months, and Sonny fell out of shape. Back at the casino, liv­ing that casino life, his body fell into dis­re­pair—and then he was once again cheated out of over a mil­lion dol­lars. Some part of him might’ve given up, as Fitzger­ald says, “with­out your know­ing it” and was only

“re­al­ized sud­denly in­deed” when he went down from a punch that could never have felled him phys­i­cally if some­thing in­cor­po­real hadn’t al­ready been cracked. Isn’t this how most things break? Af­ter a ro­man­tic breakup, for ex­am­ple, one of­ten won­ders about the spe­cific mo­ments of the split, the night it hap­pened—what could one have done dif­fer­ently to keep the frac­tur­ing at bay, that night, that morn­ing, that af­ter­noon on the phone? But later, of course, one sees it wasn’t about those mo­ments at all—that the breakup was just the log­i­cal out­come of fis­sures that had al­ready hap­pened and hap­pened slowly, un­de­tected, much ear­lier, stack­ing one upon the other. Or, say, a per­son is fired, and the fo­cus is on the “ter­minable of­fense.” Or say a fam­ily schism hap­pens, Son Dis­avows Fa­ther—but the head­line is never the real story. The real story is a slow, nearly im­per­cep­ti­ble nur­tur­ing of re­sent­ments. Break­downs, small ones, over time. Sonny was tired. But so tired. One feels so badly for him. I set out to write about Muham­mad Ali and Neil Leifer, but it’s Lis­ton’s tale that won’t let me alone. So many of us give up on things, parts of our lives, throw­ing in the towel on whole swaths of our past, rec­og­niz­ing too late, if we rec­og­nize at all, that the sub­con­scious com­pro­mises we don’t even re­al­ize we’re mak­ing are the most dec­i­mat­ing com­pro­mises of all. But at least we’re not for­ever im­mor­tal­ized in the midst of our most ca­pit­u­lat­ing pos­ture. Sonny Lis­ton would be for­ever frozen in self-in­flicted fail­ure be­cause of one stupid photo. So maybe, just here, he should be seen as he wanted to be seen, like in this pub­lic­ity photo, taken a few months be­fore his first fight with Clay. Sonny Lis­ton is buried in Par­adise Me­mo­rial Gar­dens in Las Ve­gas, and his head­stone bears just a two-word epi­taph: “A Man.”

AP Im­ages

Neil Leifer / Neil Leifer Col­lec­tion / Getty Im­ages

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