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
, 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
In response, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title, and his boxing license was revoked.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
unceremoniously drowning in a can of Campbell’s soup, a cover he cheekily described as “all you need to say about
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?