When we look back over the last 60 years, few sports photographers have had more iconic shots than Neil Leifer. The award-winning photojournalist was there to document all the greats—from Ali to Kareem, Carl Lewis and the Dream Team. Over his career, his images appeared in publications like LIFE, The Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, and most often, Sports Illustrated.
While he was at nearly every major sporting event in the second half of the 20th century, access is not what made him special, it was his keen eye and willingness to take risks. He routinely chose to miss the obvious shot to get a perspective no one else could—and that made all the difference.
Sports photography is about capturing moments that may get lost in the frenzy of fast action—brief points in time that show athletes at the height of glory or at the depth of defeat. And Leifer had a knack for anticipating these decisive moments, even when his camera equipment had tremendous limitations.
There was no high-speed drive mode in 1965—you couldn't snap 13 frames per second aided by lightning fast autofocus. You had one push of the shutter at the right moment or it was gone forever.
One minute and 44 seconds into the Clay/Liston rematch, Leifer captured a split second in time with his Rolleiflex TLR that became one of the most recognized photos of the century. If you watch the television footage from the fight, you'll see that this moment was certainly easy to miss, and even Leifer himself admits he got lucky.
But in sports photography, you make your own luck—a combination of equal parts preparation, know-how and trusting your instincts.
Over his 50-year career, Leifer photographed 16 Olympic Games (9 Summer, 7 Winter), 4 FIFA World Cups, 15 Kentucky Derbies, 12 Super Bowls, countless World Series and NBA playoff games, and every single important heavyweight title fight. Ali remained his favorite subject, and they had over 30 studio shoots together.
Leifer published Sports in 1978—still seen as the quintessential sports photography book. His contribution to photojournalism cannot be measured, and the images he captured will serve as important and cherished documents for centuries to come.
All photos by Neil Leifer. Top image by Brian To/Film Magic