Life Through A Lens: Legendary Photographer Neil Leifer On Ali, Foreman And Rocky

'Find yourself a subject like Muhammad Ali, follow them around for 40 years and you can't miss.'
07:00, 28 Apr 2022

Imagine if you will, Muhammad Ali. Really take a second to picture ‘The Greatest’, the most recognisable athlete of all-time, in your mind’s eye. What do you see? Is it the brash and beautiful champion stood over a prostrate Sonny Liston, demanding he get up and face him? Perhaps it’s the otherworldly aerial shot of him knocking out Cleveland Williams? Maybe it’s Ali fixing the mighty George Foreman with a taunting glare as the soon-to-be ex-champion walks disconsolately back to his corner?

All of the above images, central to the iconography of the greatest heavyweight to ever lace a pair of gloves, came from the lens of one man: Neil Leifer.

The Sportsman was incredibly fortunate to spend time speaking with Leifer ahead of the release of The Fight, a new book covering the Rumble in the Jungle, merging Leifer’s unforgettable images with those of Ali confidante Howard Bingham and the legendary words of Norman Mailer. The man behind history’s defining boxing images spoke to The Sportsman about the book, the fight and ‘The Greatest’, as well as his time working with a certain fictional boxer.

The Rumble In The Jungle has taken this iconic place in sporting history, but it was a surprising venue for a major fight. What are your recollections of finding out you were going to Zaire?

For Americans who covered boxing, whether they were newspaper writers or magazine writers, the fights took place in our country. I’m not old enough to have shot Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano. I started at 16 years old, I did shoot (Floyd) Patterson and (Ingemar) Johansson, but I was 16 years old. So I didn't do the old fights. But the boxing took place in Madison Square Garden in New York and the Boston Garden in Boston or in Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It took place here. 

Muhammad Ali started bringing the American press around the world. He fought a couple of times in the UK. I was there when he fought Brian London, I went to that fight. But you didn’t get experiences like Zaire. The fight was announced after George Foreman fought Ken Norton in Venezuela, which I photographed and I was at the fight. At the press conference the next day, they announced Foreman’s fight (with Ali). 

I was a good geography student in school. I knew the countries of Europe, I knew most of the countries of Africa, but I never heard of Zaire. I knew the Belgian Congo. I knew that the colonisation of those countries ended. But I didn't know that was there. The idea of travelling to a place that I never dreamed I'd be going, in the middle of Africa, it was just a thrill. It was great.

There’s a wonderful shot in the book of Foreman walking away from Ali, and Ali appears to be almost taunting him. Foreman’s head is bowed and he looks like he has nothing left. What can you tell me about that shot?

My favourite shot from the fight, period. And let me tell you, I pushed very hard… that picture is on the cover of the book. Taschen was looking to put an action picture, an Ali punching picture or something. Maybe the knockout, but I fought for that picture. You’ve picked my favourite picture. 

When you're planning, you're watching, there are things you may not notice. But often the body language of the fighters tells the whole story. Nobody that covered that fight, nobody who watched that fight could understand, certainly when it started, Ali’s insane idea of rope-a-dope. He's leaning against the ropes, he's letting this guy who's known to be one of the hardest punchers, maybe in the history of the heavyweight division…I mean, I don't know that George Foreman had seen the third round, going back to the Olympics, because he’d been knocking people out in the first or second round. And now, Muhammad Ali is at the end of the seventh round. Muhammad has laid on the ropes. He's let Foreman whale away at him. And the bell rings at the end of the seventh round, that picture was the end of the seventh round. 

At that point, both fighters knew the fight was over. It was a matter of if Ali was going to get him in the eighth round, the ninth round, the 10th round. At that point, Foreman had thrown his best punch and nothing had happened. Among other things, he punched himself out. If you look at his body language, and you look at his face, and then you look at Ali. I was so focused on trying to take pictures, I really never heard anything. So I can't tell you if Ali said anything, but I don't think he did. But Muhammad at that point knew it was only a matter of time, he was feeling good. He was fresh. I don't think Ali at that point thought there was any chance that George Foreman was going to knock him out. And I think George Foreman knew that to be the case and that picture shows that. And then sure enough, in the eighth round, within two minutes of that picture being taken, Foreman was on the canvas and counted out.

Do you know when you’ve captured a classic image like that, where you know it will stand the test of time?

Only if the event is so big, if the moment is so big. I mean the answer is no, you don't know. Because my two very best known photographs are Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, and the overhead shot of Cleveland Williams and Ali. My Ali-Liston picture didn’t win a single award. At the end of the century, people were calling it the greatest sports picture of all time. I like to think that was because Ali had become maybe the greatest athlete of all time. People wanted to remember when he was young and handsome. Certainly during the years that he was battling Parkinson's disease, people loved to look back.

This guy was movie star good-looking, had tremendous charisma and they wanted to remember him that way. Those pictures make you do that. 

When I took the picture that we were talking about, with Foreman heading back to the corner. I like those kinds of pictures, I knew it looked good. I had no idea, I couldn’t see it. Of course today you see the back of the camera, the digital camera. You didn't see the pictures then, the film was flown back to New York and processed. I probably didn't see the pictures for three or four days, until I got home. So you wouldn't know. 

I've taken pictures like that before though, I’ve always liked pictures like that. I did a wonderful picture in the second Ruiz-Joshua fight. There was a point in the fight where Joshua knew, I mean Ruiz was so out of shape that Joshua knew, but the fact is that you can see it. 

There's a picture in my book Leifer Boxing, it’s a wonderful picture. This is when Floyd Patterson fought Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas. At the end of whatever round, there's a picture of Ali coming back to the corner. His body language just smacks of champion, he looks like a million dollars. He's strong and he looks great. The look of confidence on his face. Then just on the other side of the frame is Floyd Patterson sort of slumped over, his body language looks like he's in pain. More importantly, he knows the fight's not going to go much longer and he’s sure as hell not going to win.

'Nobody who watched that fight could understand Ali’s insane idea of rope-a-dope.'
"Nobody who watched that fight could understand Ali’s insane idea of rope-a-dope."

Foreman and Ali are often portrayed as wildly different personalities. Did you notice any key differences in their demeanours in Zaire?

No, because Foreman appeared to be confident and relaxed. I watched Foreman, I stayed in the same hotel Foreman did. Most of the writers and photographers did. The president has a place called Camp David, which is a presidential retreat, where presidents often go to spend a weekend away from the White House. In Zaire it was called N’Sele. That's where the fighters trained. That's where the boxing ring was set up to train, and Muhammad stayed there.

He lived there and Foreman and lived in the Intercontinental Hotel in Kinshasa, where I was lucky enough to stay. I say lucky enough because there was no air conditioning at N’Seles, and there was air conditioning at (the Intercontinental).  Foreman would be up by the pool with the press around it, in an easy chair. I remember him playing ping pong, here are some of the pictures of him playing ping pong with Archie Moore in The Fight. Foreman looked relaxed, he looked great in training.I watched him for three or four days training.

Foreman was thought of as a huge favourite going in. What was the mood among the press corps when it came to picking a winner?

I love looking through, at some point in the book, they polled the press and all the visiting press gave their prediction for the fight. I predicted that Foreman was going to knock him out. I really didn't think that Ali (would win). There's always someone younger, bigger, stronger, bolder. It was very hard to really think Ali could knock this guy out. Now a lot of people picked him, a lot of people. When you look at the pages I'm talking about with these sheets, the sheets that we all filled out. Everybody had a line to just write the prediction, who you thought was going to win the fight and how they were going to win. 

I picked Foreman, and I wanted Ali to win. I really wanted Ali to win, I was rooting for Ali. But realistically, having shot Foreman… I was ringside when he fought Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica to win the championship. Then I went to Tokyo for his first defence, he fought a guy named (Jose) Roman, Puerto Rican fighter. He knocked Roman out in two minutes of the first round. Ken Norton was a terrific fighter and he just killed Norton. Was it the second round he knocked him out? Why would anyone pick Ali? And I thought Ali was a fabulous fighter. But don't forget Ali won the title in 1964, so it was now 10 years since he won that title. He had the three and a half year layoff and as good as he looked after that, that had to take a tremendous toll on the God’s gifts that Ali had as an athlete. Nobody, nobody could be away three and a half years and be as good as he was before. But that night he was, it was a miracle.

'It’s hard to miss when you’ve got someone that gives you every opportunity to succeed. He was a writer’s dream, and he was a photographer’s dream.'
"It’s hard to miss when you’ve got someone that gives you every opportunity to succeed. He was a writer’s dream, and he was a photographer’s dream."

You are synonymous with the most famous boxer of all-time in Ali, but you also have a close connection to the most famous fictional boxer of all-time. What can you tell me about your experience working on the Rocky franchise?

When I did most of Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, I was going through a divorce. So I like to say Sylvester Stallone put both my kids through college. It was great. Sly Stallone is a friend of mine, I worked on about five or six of his movies and a couple of those were Rocky.

I've covered a lot of Hollywood actors. Usually actors were very cooperative, because I was there to do the poster that was going to appear in theatres or whatever. But Sly was probably closer to Muhammad Ali in terms of his ability, when he said he was going to do something he gave you all the time, the access I had. But I did exactly the same thing.  Anything I ever asked him to do, he always said yes. I love the guy. In terms of just my earnings, at the time when I was going through a divorce and child support, I always joke about it but Stallone put my kids through college. So I love Stallone.

There’s this picture from The Fight, a full-page with Stallone and Gerry Cooney. That picture was for the cover of Time Magazine. Sly was making a movie, he was making the first Rambo. I think they were in Vancouver or Alaska, I’m not sure. He flew across the country because Cooney was training to fight (Larry) Holmes and they weren’t going to let him fly to California. Sly took the weekend, he got on a plane and he flew across. He understood the importance of a Time cover, and how much it would help him.

How does it feel to have your images paired with the iconic words of Norman Mailer in The Fight?

I'm thrilled. I've always tried to get top writers to do either an introduction or a preface or a foreword for my books, because it matters. ‘Leifer: Boxing’ has a writer every bit as well known as Norman Mailer, Gay Talese who wrote the introduction. I've had two books done with George Plimpton, who was also in Zaire. Of course, Norman Mailer, they don’t come bigger. I’m thrilled to have my name on the same book as Norman Mailer.

Norman Mailer. Neil Leifer. Howard L. Bingham. The Fight

TASCHEN

£ 80

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