Way back in 1966 and 1967, while working on a Houston city story for National Geographic, I covered two of Muhammed Ali’s fights in the Houston Astrodome, which was then still billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” I was not then or ever, a sports photographer. I wanted to cover those two fights because I felt I could possibly show the relatively new and dramatic Astrodome in use for something other than a baseball game. And in truth, I wanted to see the fights.
In November of 1966 Ali destroyed Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in three rounds. Then in early in 1967 he toyed with Ernie Terrell for 15 rounds, making the taller Terrell suffer through the full length of the fight at the end of which both of Terrell’s eyes were swollen almost shut with just narrow slits remaining, bloody gashes appearing beneath them like sloppily applied scarlet mascara. Many of the 35,000 in attendance thought Ali could have ended the fight earlier, but he instead taunted Terrell, repeatedly asking him, ”What’s my name..?” as he mercilessly pummeled the fighter who before the fight had insisted on calling him not by his chosen Muslim name but by his name at birth, Cassius Clay. I remember how astoundingly fluid and quick was Ali as he moved about the ring. This was not a plodding pugilist. Constantly in motion, Ali was never less than a beautiful vision of graceful athleticism.
I didn’t come away with any memorable pictures from either of those bouts, both of which I photographed from a ringside position just to the immediate right of Ali’s corner. In fact, for the first fight I was asked to please get the hell out of the seat where Ali’s long time and eventually legendary trainer, Angelo Dundee was to be seated between rounds. What did I know? I’d never covered a fight before, let alone a World Heavyweight Championship. I moved over. No problem.
Today I watched a few Youtube replays of both fights and can at times just briefly make out my presence at ringside, aiming one of my Leicas, trying to frame an image between the ropes. I didn’t know Neil Leifer then, or now, for that matter, but in watching the Youtube replays of one of the fights–I think it’s the Big Cat Williams fight–I can see him shooting from the opposite side of the ring. Leifer, of course, has made some of the truly classic boxing pictures and marvelous images of other sports as well. His image of Ali standing over the downed Sonny Liston at the end of their second bout has to be one of the all time great sports images.
The Washington Post ran a picture today from the Ali/Williams fight with “Big Cat” stretched out on his back on the mat while the referee leads Ali to a neutral corner. That had to have been made from a remote camera somewhere up on the catwalk in the Astrodome. I’ve been up there. It’s a hell of a view. The picture is accredited to Associated Press. I’m sure it’s not full frame. I’d love to see the whole image, see where I was that night at that moment.
Ironically, what I most remember from trying to photograph those two heavyweight championship fights fifty years ago, was a picture I saw but didn’t make, shortly after the end of the Ali/Williams fight. I was in Williams’s dressing room where he was, accept for his wife and a small black preacher, unattended, no reporters, just me. Williams, slumped and battered and still in his robe, was kneeling on the cold concrete floor of the dressing room while the preacher stood in prayer with one hand gently crowning the fighter’s head. The fighter’s wife was holding a small red felt triangular pennant with her husband’s name on it. I saw that image of the three of them as I walked away, out through the door, camera in hand but not to my eye. I was young, not a very good or at least experienced photojournalist then and too Minnesotan to think I could intrude upon such an intimate moment. So I didn’t make the picture. I left.
Along with many other images I’ve seen over the years but for some reason or other didn’t make, that picture, framed then in my eye for just a moment, still lives in my memory. I wrote about this picture in an epilogue called Pictures We Don’t Take, at the end of my last book: WILLIAM ALBERT ALLARD: Five Decades. I think that picture in that cold and drab dressing room would have been worthy, something of value, something to stand the test of time in recording not just a sporting event but the human condition as we find it in so many different ways. We experience triumph and we suffer defeats, all of us. When the enthusiasm that supports and encourages the combat of ferocious, brutally fierce athletes is brought to an end, when the fights are over, what we have is the ultimate frailty of man. Maybe that’s a bit much, I don’t know. But I’ll always remember that picture. I think it would have been comparable to a Neil Leifer effort and that’s setting the bar pretty high. Which is what I’ve always tried to do. Otherwise, it’s just a job.