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Behind the lens – Iconic boxing photography

Neil Leifer boxing photographer
Renowned photographer Neil Leifer tells Paul Wheeler about his life in boxing

WITH over 160 of his pictures having adorned the front cover of Sports Illustrated, and more than 40 having graced the cover of Time, Neil Leifer is what you would call photography royalty. And there is one subject in particular that the 78-year-old New Yorker is synonymous with – the sport of boxing.

In his 18th and latest book, Leifer. Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters (TASCHEN, £800), the esteemed photographer showcases hundreds of his finest boxing photographs in what is a love letter to his favourite sport and the culmination of a lifetime’s work.

Leifer’s passion for boxing was triggered by nights sat in front of an old black and white television in the mid-1950s, watching the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports as a teenager with his father.

“They used to show some good fights,” Leifer remembers fondly. “I saw fighters like Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson in their prime. When I was a kid, boxing was probably the second most popular sport in America, after baseball. You couldn’t find a boy who wouldn’t be able to tell you who the heavyweight champion of the world was and who the middleweight champion was – probably the light-heavyweight and welterweight champions too. Everyone knew who they were.”

Alongside boxing, Leifer’s other main interest as a youngster was photography.

“I grew up in a pretty poor neighbourhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” recalls Leifer. “There was a lot of crime and kids turning to drugs. They had settlement houses to keep kids off the street. For example, a kid who was interested in music could go to a settlement house and learn how to play the piano, even though there’s no way in the world that anybody who grew up in the area could afford a piano or even have an apartment big enough to accommodate one.

“I belonged to the Henry Street Settlement, which had a camera club. I went two nights a week and worked with a wonderful teacher. She made photography really fun and I got hooked on it. That was the beginning for me. What with me being a huge sports fan, I naturally gravitated to photographing sports.”

Leifer photographed his first big fight in June 1959 at the age of 16. The venue was Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The fight was Floyd Patterson vs Ingemar Johansson for the world heavyweight title.

“My best friend, Johnny Iacono, belonged to the same camera club as me at the Henry Street Settlement. He was a boxing fan too,” informs Leifer. “We managed to get tickets in the cheapest nosebleed seats at Yankee Stadium for five dollars. We were about 200 yards from the ring! I took my little camera with me and we worked our way down to the lower seats. The opening picture in the new book is one I took that night.

“The irony is that not only did I go on to shoot boxing for Sports Illustrated all through Muhammad Ali’s great years, but Johnny also became a staff photographer at Sports Illustrated. When I moved on to Time magazine, Johnny pretty much took over shooting boxing for Sports Illustrated. So it’s really unusual that the two of us started out on the same night in 1959 from five-dollar seats at Yankee Stadium.”

Breaking into the boxing photography industry in the 1960s, Leifer hit the jackpot.

“In every aspect boxing was the right sport for me to cover, and certainly my favourite,” says Leifer. “I was lucky enough to be shooting in the ‘60s and ‘70s when Ali was on the scene. In America, the ‘60s and ‘70s were spectacular decades for boxing. You had Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. I was on the apron in Manila when Ali fought Frazier and I was on the apron in Zaire when Ali fought Foreman. Of course, later on in the ‘80s and ‘90s you had Mike Tyson too.

“I’ve always felt that the boxing crowd is one of the most wonderful to be around. Where else would you find somebody like Angelo Dundee or Eddie Futch or Emanuel Steward? Where else would you find characters like Don King and Bob Arum? You just don’t find these people anywhere other than in boxing.”

Of all the countless larger-than-life personalities that Leifer has encountered during his long and distinguished career, one name stands out above all others – both on a global and personal level.

Muhammad Ali was colourful and flamboyant. He liked the camera and he liked people,” states Leifer. “If I was photographing Ali, he’d ask me, ‘How much time do you need?’ And I’d say, ‘Can I have 15 to 20 minutes?’ An hour later he’d still be there, suggesting poses! He was showbusiness and he had so much charisma. I certainly owe him a whole lot for the success I’ve had. As a photographer with Ali, you couldn’t miss. He gave you every opportunity to capture something terrific.”

In 2014, Leifer became the first-ever photographer to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame – a fitting tribute to a giant of his field.

“It was unbelievable when I got the call from [IBHOF Executive Director] Ed Brophy,” recollects Leifer. “There are other photographers who should certainly be in the Hall of Fame too – some really fabulous photographers. As you get a little older, it makes you feel good that people recognise that you’ve done something significant.”

DEONTAY WILDER vs TYSON FURY II
MGM Grand, Las Vegas, NV (February 22, 2020)

“For this fight, I wanted to be in a position where I could do a number of things, so I chose to shoot from much further back and higher up, instead of being on the apron. The long lenses today are so sharp. The modern equipment allows you to do things that you wouldn’t have been able to do before, because the technology is so much better. The ability to shoot at shutter speed in the light levels that you have at today’s fights makes it possible to do what I did here. I deliberately shot the fight this way – it’s a clean view from which I was able to get wide-angle shots. I don’t want all of my pictures to look like they’ve been taken from the same vantage point. I want to show different perspectives. Look at the way the game has changed. Today, the lighting at boxing events is like a Rolling Stones concert, plus there are logos all over the ring. In many ways, Tyson Fury is the perfect example of this change, but with his character and charisma, he reminds me of Ali more than anyone I’ve seen.”

MUHAMMAD ALI vs CLEVELAND WILLIAMS
Astrodome, Houston, TX (November 14, 1966)

“This is my favourite picture. Normally you could never do a picture like this because the camera wouldn’t be high enough over the ring to give you that perspective. In most arenas, the lighting rig would be 20ft above the ring, and the widest-angle lens wouldn’t capture the whole ring in the shot. But the Houston Astrodome was known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Because the lighting rig was so big, they had to elevate it 80ft above the ring, so that the view from the upper-deck seats wouldn’t be blocked and obscured. I figured out that you could put a remote camera in the middle of the lighting rig, so I consider this picture as one that came from my imagination and creativity – it wasn’t luck. In 2003, The Observer published a special issue, counting down the 50 greatest sports pictures of all time. They picked this picture as No. 1, which I was thrilled with. It’s the only one of my photographs that I’ve got on display in my house. It’s hanging in my living room.”

MUHAMMAD ALI vs SONNY LISTON II
St. Dominic’s Arena, Lewiston, ME (May 25, 1965)

“No question this is my best-known picture and it’s made my career. I probably wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame and no one would know who I was if it wasn’t for this picture. It’s going to be my legacy picture. At the end of 1999 when they did a recap of the whole century, Sports Illustrated put this picture on the cover and called it the greatest sports picture of the century. The irony is, when I took the picture, it didn’t make the cover of Sports Illustrated and it didn’t win a single award – not even an honourable mention. The picture wasn’t that big a deal at the time. It sort of grew as Ali’s reputation grew. There’s a lot of luck in sports photography. You’ve got to be in the right spot, and no picture proves that better than this one. The photographer who you can see between Ali’s legs is Herb Scharfman, who should be in the Hall of Fame too. From his position, he got a picture of Ali’s rear-end – not the shot that I was able to get from my position.”

TASCHEN’s Leifer. Boxing. 60 Years of Fights and Fighters, priced at £800, is a collector’s edition of 1,000 numbered copies, each signed by Neil Leifer. The book can be ordered here.

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