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Aug 19 / King Kaufman

“Muhammad Ali knocks out Cleveland Williams” is a lie: Verify everything

Muhammad Ali stands over Cleveland Williams, 1966

It’s one of the most famous photos in sports history, an iconic image by Neil Leifer of Sports Illustrated. His remote-control camera in the rafters of the Astrodome captured Muhammad Ali, his arms raised in victory, walking away from a supine Cleveland Williams during their fight on Nov. 14, 1966.

The image at the top of this story is an Associated Press photo, snapped a few moments earlier, just as referee Harry Kessler directed Ali to go to a corner.

The Twitter feed People of Earth, which posts all sorts of fabulous contemporary and historical photos, featured that incredible photo in July. It came across my screen over the weekend when a friend retweeted it.


The lesson here? Boxing Muhammad Ali is very dangerous.

Wait, that’s not the lesson. The lesson is that pictures can lie. The lesson is verify everything. Don’t just trust what somebody says on, for example, Twitter. Even if that somebody seems pretty legit, or doesn’t seem to have an agenda, or what they’re saying seems kind of obvious.

And don’t just trust what a picture seems to be telling you. I’ve seen that photo of Ali and Williams countless times in my life. For decades, it didn’t occur to me that it showed anything other than Muhammad Ali knocking out Cleveland Williams at the Astrodome, Houston, 1966.

But guess what: That’s not a picture of Muhammad Ali knocking out Cleveland Williams at the Astrodome, Houston, 1966.

Oh, you can find all sorts of legitimate types describing it that way. The Times of London trustworthy enough for ya? Here’s that paper talking about the photo in 2012. If you’re not a subscriber, you can just see the description: “The picture captures the knockout at the end of Ali’s world heavyweight title fight against Cleveland Williams, a contest generally considered to be one of the best performances of Ali’s career.”

Here’s the Baltimore Sun describing the picture in 2013: “Ali is walking cleanly to his corner as Williams lays splayed out on the white canvas ringed by spectators and press. The referee counting him out.”

But the referee didn’t count him out. The knockdown, the third of the second round, came a few seconds before the bell. There was a moment of confusion as Kessler continued counting after the bell, then waved off the count and allowed Williams’ corner men to help him up. Williams came out for the third round, was eventually knocked down yet again, somehow climbed back to his feet one more time, and fought on a little while longer before Kessler finally stopped the fight.

About three minutes had passed since Leifer had snapped his photo, the one that showed Muhammad Ali “knocking out” Cleveland Williams. Or at least that’s what we’d think if we were to trust social media, or multiple respected news organizations, or even our own lying eyes, rather than digging down to the source—in this case, video of the fight, which is freely available on YouTube.

Here’s the whole bout, but if you just want to see the knockdown in question, click here: