The photo is iconic, about as perfect as a photo can be. It depicts for all of time the moment at which Muhammad Ali became an athletic legend and, by snapping it, a photographer for Sports Illustrated solidified his status as one of sports’ great photojournalists.

It very nearly did not come to be.

Neil Leifer was an aspiring young photographer when he went to Lewiston, Maine, to photograph the fight between Sonny Liston and the man then known as Cassius Clay. In the introduction of the book, “The Best of Leifer,” George Plimpton tells the story of how lucky timing helped create a powerful work of art:

Luck has so much to do with great photography and Neil seems to wear its mantle as if touched by a magician’s wand. A case in point: his famous picture of Muhammad Ali standing over the fallen Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, May 1965. The editors of Sports Illustrated had sent Neil along with a fellow photographer, Herb Scharfman, to cover the fight. The two were stationed on opposite sides of the ring. In Neil’s picture, framed by Ali’s legs, Scharfman is the balding man with the dark-rimed glasses who has half-risen out of his seat, his Rolliflex camera useless. At that shocking instant, the best Herb could hope for was a shot of Ali’s rear end.

Leifer, a former colleague of mine at The National Sports Daily, has always been modest as well as justifiably proud of his work. In 1965, he was a hungry young photographer but Scharfman, as the senior photographer, chose to sit by the judges’ table and Leifer made a smart move by deferring to Scharfman. It was another bit of luck.

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The fight was brief, but Leifer, as usual, was well prepared for the moment when it came. In “The Best of Leifer,” he stressed that, for a photographer, “it doesn’t matter” whether a fight “goes 15 rounds or 15 seconds.”

In Lewiston, the knockout happened exactly where I wanted it to and my only thought was “Stay right there, Sonny! Please don’t get up!” Part of being a successful photographer is being lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time like I was, but a more important part is not missing when you’re in that spot. I got very lucky at the Ali-Liston fight, but what I’m proudest of is that I didn’t miss.

Leifer’s photo was not fully appreciated by his editors at the time, although it went on to be voted the best sports photo of the last century. A similar image taken by John Rooney of the Associated Press (above) is often mistaken for it, but the composition of Leifer’s is perfect. The easiest way to tell the difference? Scharfman in Leifer’s photo is framed between the legs of Ali. In an Iowa Review essay, Dave Mondy captured the difference:

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 editor 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.

The photo also marked the beginning of a relationship between Ali and Leifer, who frequently photographed the champ and compiled a brilliant gallery of images of Ali.

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“There has never been an athlete like Ali,” Leifer told Mondy, “and I was lucky enough that my career and his career paralleled.”

More coverage of Muhammad Ali’s death:

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