The night when Muhammad Ali and Atlanta shined


Editor's note: This story was originally published on October 24, 2015.

Muhammad Ali may have lit the flame of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but it was another visit, decades earlier, that shined a light on the possibilities of one ambitious southern city.

On Monday, it will be 45 years since “The Greatest” staged his ring comeback in the old Atlanta Municipal Auditorium against Jerry Quarry, in a scene described by the late ring writer Bert Sugar as, “probably the greatest collection of black power and black money ever assembled up to that time. They weren’t boxing fans, they were idolaters.”

Forty-five years since some of those very fans — dripping in fur and gold — were lured into one of the most audacious robberies in city history. They all survived the ordeal. Not so for the ring of the thieves, who had miscalculated their victims’ capacity for vengeance.

All those years later and the story today still resonates with a timeless combination of politics and race and war. Throw in the 20th century’s most global and polarizing athlete, and it begs the question: Isn’t about time the movie come out?

The scene was set during the roiling 1960s, when Ali, stating religious objections, declaring that “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong,” refused to be drafted into military service. Convicted of violating Selective Service laws in 1967, he was sentenced to five years in prison. As Ali appealed — the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately struck down the conviction in 1971 — he was stripped of his titles and his license to fight by all the major boxing commissions in the U.S. For more than three years — over his competitive prime from the age of 25 to almost 29 — he remained in competitive limbo.

No one would touch him. More than 50 locales had denied him a license to fight. Until a city that already was distinguishing itself as the South’s most progressive enclave said, “We can do it.”

An Atlanta businessman named Harry Pett, with family connections to a large sports marketing firm, made first contact with a state senator named Leroy Johnson in the summer of ’70. If you can provide the venue, Pett told him, we can get a contract with Ali.

Enthusiastically, Johnson took up the idea and ran with it as the would-be promoter of the great comeback fight.

“I had not been much of a fight fan before that,” Johnson, 87, remembered recently. “The thing that energized me was that the New York boxing commission said he’d never fight again in this country. To me that became a challenge, a challenge against the system.

“Obviously we made some money out of it and I’m glad we did. But I was more concerned about doing what the system said we couldn’t do.”

Johnson won the support of Atlanta’s mayor at the time, Sam Massell. And he rounded up support of the city’s other political leaders. The state’s segregationist governor, Lester Maddox, put on a public display of disapproval, declaring the date of the fight as “a day of mourning.” But he erected no real barriers behind the scenes, Johnson said.

Ultimately this was a local issue. “Although I’m not fond of boxing, I felt he had a right to earn a living,” Massell explained recently.

In the buildup to the fight, Johnson and other supporters were met with anonymous death threats, serious enough that they were given police protection for weeks leading to the fight.

But there otherwise was a marked lack of public unrest. In fact, Atlanta began reaping positive publicity as much as a month before, when Ali staged an exhibition at Morehouse College, going eight rounds against three sparring partners.

Wrote Martin Kane in Sports Illustrated: “After last week’s test case in the Morehouse gym, which pretty well established that Atlanta — the South’s most socially sophisticated and least racially torn big city — would not be rent asunder by protesting rioters, it appears that Ali has a real fight coming up on Oct. 26.”

When that night arrived, what a show it was. More outside the ring than in.

“It was a coronation; the king regaining his throne,” the late Julian Bond said in the book, “Muhammad Ali, His Life and Times. “You had all these people from the fast lane who were there; and the style of dress was fantastic. Men in ankle-length fur coats; women wearing smiles and pearls and not much else.”

Eldrin Bell, a former Atlanta police chief and Clayton County commission chairman, was an Atlanta police sergeant in 1970, working Ali’s dressing room and corner. “It was Atlanta like Las Vegas that night,” Bell said.

For all his ring rust, Ali dispatched Quarry in three bloody rounds. He had announced in that old auditorium (long since swallowed up by Georgia State) that he was back, setting up epic battles to come with Joe Frazier and George Foreman.

As Ali was dissecting Quarry, printed invitations to a post-fight gala at a nearby home circulated among the decked out fans.

When the curious arrived, each was met at the door by a masked man with a sawed-off shotgun, and herded downstairs to the basement. There, they were ordered to stuff their jewelry and money into a pillowcase and lie down on the floor. The pillowcase was filled to overflowing and the victims began stacking up like cordwood. At the time, police said the haul was worth $100,000, but estimates were rough since not all those in attendance were anxious to talk to police. One of the detectives on the case, Joseph Amos, today figures the take was “two or three times” the reported amount.

Amos realized he was dealing with a different class of crime victim when he went to interview a witness at his home and noted automatic weapons hidden beneath some of the furniture. These assuredly were the wrong people to rob.

Sure enough, the case was effectively closed the following spring when three men — two of them main suspects in the Atlanta robbery — were found shot execution-style in the Bronx. Another detective at the time, J.D. Hudson, told reporters, “We said last fall it was a question of who caught up with them first — the police or the victims.”

The robbery, it turned out, was but a lurid footnote to the night a city and a fighter were thrown together by the mutual need to be noticed. For both Ali and the new image makers of Atlanta won on the night of Oct. 26, 1970.

“It showed we had the courage in Atlanta,” Massell said.

“Atlanta came through where other cities didn’t. Here again was another feather in Atlanta’s cap,” Johnson said.


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