Visual Culture

The Photograph That Made a Martyr out of Muhammad Ali

Alexxa Gotthardt
Nov 7, 2018 9:00PM

Lodging six arrows deep into the body of one of the world’s strongest athletes is no small feat—even if it’s a stunt. Just ask art director George Lois and photographer Carl Fischer, who created one of journalism’s most iconic images in 1967, when they showed champion boxer Muhammad Ali’s glistening chest and thigh seemingly pierced by a volley of sharp bolts.

The photo, which ran as the April 1968 cover of Esquire, shocked readers for many reasons. Not only was the mighty Ali portrayed as fallible—bleeding from six wounds and mouth agape in agony—the image was also loaded with allusions to highly charged events rippling through and dividing America.

Lois and Fischer shot the photo in late 1967, when tensions from the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests ran high. Ali, then in his mid-twenties, fought for both causes. He’d become a galvanizing example of black triumph after winning the heavyweight championship in 1964. More controversially, though, he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War—a move that made him myriad enemies across government, sports, publishing, and American homes. Ali had recently converted to Islam, whose holy book, the Qur’an, condemned violence. So when he was called up for induction into the army, in 1967, he attended the ceremony, but didn’t move a muscle when his name was called. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he explained that year.

In response, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title, and his boxing license was revoked. He was fined $10,000 and later arrested, though he never served time (he was cleared by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971). Outcast and scapegoated, the boxer’s immense fan base, along with those protesting the seemingly unending war, rallied around their hero fiercely.

It was in this environment that Lois, a thirtysomething former adman helming Esquire’s creative team, received the fateful assignment to conceive a cover featuring Ali. By that point, Lois had already built a reputation for siphoning the era’s hot-button issues—from the sexual revolution to Nixon’s election campaign—into bold, witty images. (He’d later be the one to portray Andy Warhol unceremoniously drowning in a can of Campbell’s soup, a cover he cheekily described as “all you need to say about Pop art.”)

But working on Ali’s cover hit particularly close to home. The two were friends, and Lois knew he needed a concept that lived up to Ali’s behemoth celebrity and his controversial plight. An idea hit him as he mulled Ali’s choice to sacrifice career in favor of his personal beliefs. Why not model the boxer after one of the bible’s most well-known, hardest-suffering martyrs, the figure of Saint Sebastian himself?

On set with Muhammad Ali for the April 1968 cover shoot of Esquire. Courtesy of Carl Fischer.


In an age before Google or Wikipedia, Lois scoured books for paintings of the saint. He was on the hunt for an image in which the figure’s “body was solid and strong, but his arms were behind his back and he was in pain,” he later told Rolling Stone. As it turned out, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection provided a particularly expressive portrayal by Renaissance painter Francesco Botticini, in which Saint Sebastian is tethered to a tree as his body endures a barrage of arrows. It was a postcard of this composition that Lois later brought to the shoot to show Ali himself.

But when the day of the shoot arrived, hurdles abounded—Lois hadn’t warned Ali about the coming roleplay. As Fischer remembered, “We never told people what they were going to do before they got to a shoot; they would never show up if we did.” Ali trusted Lois, but also felt hesitant to pose as a Christian figure, given his devout Muslim beliefs. In a frantic effort to save the concept, Lois got the boxer’s spiritual advisor, Elijah Muhammad, on the phone. After a long cascade of questions, approval was granted.

Six faux arrows were subsequently applied to the boxer’s body, but they kept flopping unconvincingly toward the ground, unable to stay erect long enough to get the shot. By way of a solution, the team painstakingly finagled a contraption of clear wires, which suspended arrows from the ceiling so that they hit Ali just where Lois envisioned: five to the chest and one to the upper right thigh.

Fischer and Lois marveled at how patient Ali remained, and how still he stood as they danced with cameras and equipment around him. “He didn’t complain,” Fischer later recalled to Esquire. “He was one of the few people in public life who was just like his reputation. He was funny. He was relaxed. He wasn’t a bullshitter.”

But Lois’s recollection of an interaction with Ali mid-shoot suggests another reason for the boxer’s zen stillness: He was deep in thought, mulling the similarities between his own martyrdom and that of the saint he portrayed. “He took his right hand out from behind his back and pointed at each of the arrows,” recalled Lois to Rolling Stone. “Then he’d say the names of the people in this world that were out to get him.” Names of government figures who’d emerged from Ali’s mouth slowly and deliberately: Lyndon Johnson, General Westmoreland, Robert McNamara, and more—one for each of the six wounds.

When the cover hit newsstands, on April 4, 1968, the loaded metaphor wasn’t lost on the American public; readers were shocked and in awe. The same day, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, endowing the image with even deeper significance, and highlighting themes of racial persecution and peaceful protest.

The impact of the photo hasn’t waned with time. The Associated Press called it “so powerful that some people of a certain age remember where they were when they saw it for the first time,” while NPR’s Kurt Andersen heralded it as “the greatest [magazine] cover ever created, making a political statement without being grim or stupid or predictable” and “not just a great idea, but visually elegant, economical, perfect.”

More recent magazine covers have riffed on Lois and Fischer’s prize image, too. In 2005, Radar spoofed it with a shot of Tom Cruise perforated with arrows, a campy nod to the actor’s very vocal commitment to the Church of Scientology. (By then, Photoshop was available and arrows didn’t need to be strung from the rafters.) Photographer David LaChapelle seemed to reference it, too, when he captured Kanye West, who has compared himself to Jesus, wearing a bloody crown of thorns for a 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.

But neither of these covers throw the same weight as Lois and Fischer’s original, which harnessed not only Ali’s character and suffering, but the suffering of an era. “He was a true superhero of American history,” Lois later remembered. “And he was a worldwide ambassador of courage and conviction.”

Alexxa Gotthardt