“Luck was such a huge factor in that picture,” sports photographer Neil Leifer says of this shot of Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston. “You have to be in the right seat. Look between Ali’s legs; there’s a bald photographer, a little older — Herb Scharfman, the other Sports Illustrated photographer.”

Legendary sports photographer Neil Leifer knows kismet plays a part in capturing a moment perfectly. But a shutterbug still has to capitalize on serendipity.

“What separates a really good sports photographer from the ordinary sports photographer is when the good photographer gets lucky, he doesn’t miss,” says Leifer, 69.

The former Sports Illustrated photographer rarely missed, but karma was certainly on Leifer’s side the night he created his most famous image: a 1965 shot of Muhammad Ali standing over a downed Sonny Liston and yelling, “Get up and fight, sucker!” It was the second title bout between the heavyweights, and Ali hit Liston with such a quick right that it was dubbed a “phantom punch,” causing much controversy.

“I’m very proud of that photo,” Leifer says. “It’s been good to me.”

Leifer’s unparalleled expertise behind the camera is on display at the Newseum’s new exhibit, “Photo Finish: The Sports Photography of Neil Leifer.” The collection includes 50 stunning images, including a shot of Alan Ameche’s game-winning touchdown in the 1958 NFL championship (aka “the greatest game ever played”) and one from the “Miracle on Ice” hockey game at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Despite taking photos for Sports Illustrated for 20 years, from 1958 to 1978, Leifer can easily pick out his favorite shot.

“The picture that I’m proudest of is the Ali-Williams picture, which was shot with a remote camera, looking straight down on the canvas,” he says of his photo of the 1966 heavyweight championship bout between Ali and Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams. “Cleveland is stretched out, having been knocked down, and Ali is heading to a neutral corner with his arms up in the air in a victory pose. That picture is far and away the best picture I ever took.”

When Leifer left Sports Illustrated for Time, he carved out a new career as a top-notch news photographer, and he now makes documentary films. But as the Newseum makes clear, Leifer’s iconic sports shots are the work for which he’ll be forever remembered — for his skills more than his luck.

Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; through Aug. 12, 2012, $12.95-$21.95; 888-639-7386. (Archives)