George Lois was the original Mad Man, the creator of beyond-famous Big Ideas like “I Want My MTV” and cultural nomenclature mainstays like “Lean Cuisine.” But from 1962 to 1972, he freelanced for Esquire and created some of the most iconic magazine covers of all time.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Lois’s first Esquire cover. In anticipation of that landmark, we asked the great photographer Platon to sit down for a conversation with Lois. Platon, naturally, shot the photos, including this one, of Lois holding up that Esquire cover, which might be one of the most influential magazine covers of all time–and a high point for high-risk magazine making.
The cover is graced by an incredibly stark shot, portraying world champion heavyweight Floyd Patterson knocked out cold by monster up-and-comer Sonny Liston. Patterson is ostensibly left to die by a crowd that’s long-since gone home.
But what makes the image even more haunting is that it was actually shot weeks before Patterson lost the fight (where he did end up getting knocked out in the first round). The cover was sensational and melodramatic, but it was foretelling even down to the color of Patterson’s trunks. As Lois tells the story:
I decided to do a surrealistic piece on defeat, on how people treat a loser–in the ring, in business, or in life … I admired Patterson, but knew Liston would demolish him. The cover called for a loser, and if I could I wanted to be accurate by choosing the appropriate Everlast trunks (the champ’s choice). But Cus D’Amato, Patterson’s manager, wouldn’t tell us which Floyd would wear. So we shot the scene twice, first in black trunks, then in white. When I saw the two versions I liked them both, so I flipped a coin. The black trunks won and Esquire ran it. A few weeks later, after my first cover appeared. The punched-out champ fell to the canvas in black Everlasts. (I lucked out again!)
The press was unable to ignore the cover’s foreboding backstory, and the struggling Esquire sold out of the magazine. Of course it did. In taking a risk–in calling the fight early–Lois created an instant cultural keepsake. But while Lois may still claim he got lucky, I’d disagree. Had the opposite occurred, had Patterson knocked out Liston, the cover would have been almost equally entrancing in a Dewey Defeats Truman sort of way. The underdog champ would have pulled a Rocky III (a few years before Rocky, of course), and this image–this visual portrayal of the mantra “nobody loves a loser”–would have instead been a rallying cry for losers everywhere.
Instead, we’re just reminded of a sad but poignant truth: When you get knocked down, you don’t always get back up again.