Muhammad Ali and Atlanta: A Love Affair for the Ages


The 1960s may arguably be the most tumultuous decade in American history.  The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the challenge of established cultural norms and mores converged to produce an explosion that changed America forever.  One man and one city epitomized this convergence in 1970 and afterwards a bond formed between the two that would last for decades.

Cassius Marcellus Clay, an 18 year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, won the gold medal in boxing’s light heavyweight class representing the United States in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.  Four years later, Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.  Secretly, Clay had converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali 18 days before the fight. When drafted by the United States government in 1967 to fight in the Vietnam War, Ali refused his induction into the army declaring himself as a conscientious objector on the basis of his religious beliefs. The United States government arrested Ali, found him guilty of draft evasion, and sentenced him to five years in prison.  This conviction compelled the-then powerful New York State Athletic Commission and the World Boxing Association to strip Ali of his boxing title.  Ali appealed the draft evasion verdict that would eventually be overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 1971.  However for three years no city in the United States would sanction a fight involving Ali, and he could not fight abroad because the government would not let Ali leave while the case worked its way through the court system.  Ali’s fortunes would begin to change in 1970 when a New York corporate attorney, his father-in-law in Atlanta and a Georgia state senator conspired to set up a fight for Ali in Atlanta.

In a 2011 article in The Georgia Historical Quarterly by Paul Stephen Hudson and Lora Pond Mirza, the authors detail how the fight in Atlanta became a reality. Robert Kassell graduated from Emory University Law School and embarked on a career as a corporate attorney in New York. He also had an interest in promoting a fight for Ali.   Kassell consulted with his father-in-law, Harry Pett, who owned a spice business in Atlanta and a small sports promotion enterprise.  Pett knew he needed political help to get the fight sanctioned in Atlanta and had previously met Leroy Johnson, a Georgia state senator.  Johnson promised Pett that he would obtain a license for Ali to fight in Atlanta.

Although Johnson did not have the fame of other African-American legislators at the time, such as Julian Bond, he was “without peer in Southern black politics,” according to New York Times Magazine writer Stephen Lesher.  Johnson became the first African-American to serve in the Georgia legislature since the Reconstruction Era and earned a reputation for his ability to achieve political initiatives while in office.  In the late 1960s, Johnson assumed more political clout as a leader in the Atlanta Negro Voters League and worked closely with African-American businessman Jesse Hill, then vice president and chief actuary of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.  The two invested their money in a venture called the House of Sports, Inc., which promoted the fight.  Johnson later stated that his goal with the Ali fight was “to beat the system and say to the world that you cannot do this to a man just because of his color” (Hudson and Mirza, p. 44).

Johnson helped Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, the city’s first Jewish mayor, win the mayoral election by urging African-American voters to cast their ballots for Massell.  Johnson knew the mayor would support him in his efforts to secure the fight.  Massell had served on local draft boards and understood the laws protecting the rights of conscientious objectors.  Massell also believed in the notion that blacks and whites could work together to further the socioeconomic and political viability of the city.  The state of Georgia had no boxing commission at that time, so politics would decide the fate of an Ali fight in Atlanta.  Johnson secured Massell’s support by pledging $50,000 to fund a program that would pay people for giving information that led to drug arrests and convictions, a pet project of Massell.  With the city’s support, Johnson needed to obtain state support before the fight could be arranged.

Governor Lester Maddox had a reputation as a fierce segregationist.  Johnson met with Maddox and told him that Ali deserved another chance.  This appeal struck a nerve with Maddox.  Maddox’s son, Lester Maddox Jr. had recently been arrested and charged with burglary.  The judge in the case gave the governor’s son a second chance by allowing him to avoid jail time.  Maddox acquiesced to Johnson’s desire to stage an Ali fight in Atlanta.

With the fight officially set for October 26, 1970, the promoters for Ali initially approached current heavyweight champion Joe Frazier to be Ali’s opponent, but Frazier had a conflict.  However, Jerry Quarry, Ring magazine’s number one heavyweight contender, agreed to take on the rusty Ali.  Ali trained at Morehouse College to prepare for the contest with Quarry and worked his way to a trim, rock hard 213.5 pounds.

The fight took place with much fanfare on that fateful October evening at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium (now known as Georgia State University’s Dahlberg Hall), where both black and white patrons filled the facility.  African-American celebrities came to watch the re-birth of Ali’s career. The audience included Diana Ross, Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, and the Temptations.  Let the record state that Ali scored a technical knockout of Quarry after nine minutes of the third round, but the more important result from the evening was the formation of a bond between Muhammad Ali and the city of Atlanta.

The defeat of Quarry and the Supreme Court decision enabled Ali to return to a boxing career that would last into 1981, when he officially retired.  Ali returned to Atlanta in 1975 to help Mayor Maynard Jackson promote businesses owned by African-Americans in Atlanta.  The two squared off in a charity boxing match that ended when the mayor “knocked out” the reigning heavyweight champion.

When the city suffered through a string of child murders from 1979-1981, Ali offered his help.  The pressure was mounting for the capture of the serial killer. In 1981, Mayor Jackson held a news conference pleading for information from the public that would lead to an arrest.  The mayor offered a reward of $100,000.  Days passed with no new leads.  Ali noticed and called Jackson in the middle of the night and pledged another $400,000 of reward money.  A month later, Atlanta police found and arrested the killer.  While Ali’s money did not lead to the arrest, his magnanimous offer further demonstrated his love and appreciation for the city.

Before a fight in 1980 against Larry Holmes, Ali began showing signs of Parkinson’s syndrome.  He began experiencing vocal stutters and trembling hands.  Ali lost the fight by knock out, and according to Mike Hale in a 2009 article in The New York Times, the beating led to the further development of the disease.  Ali fought once more in 1981 losing a decision to Trevor Berbick.  In 1984, doctors officially diagnosed Ali with Parkinson’s, but it would be 1996 before Atlanta and Ali would share the headlines again.

Preparation for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta was entering the final stages.  Billy Payne, CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, needed to decide on someone to light the Olympic flame to begin the Games officially.  Evander Holyfield, former heavyweight boxing champion and local home-town hero, came to mind quickly.  When Payne suggested Holyfield to NBC executive Dick Ebersol, Ebersol countered with Muhammad Ali.  NBC held the television rights to the 1996 Games and Ebersol wanted someone with global appeal.

Ebersol gave Payne a convincing argument, stating that “…Ali may be, outside of perhaps the pope, the most beloved figure in the world.  In the third world he’s a hero.  In the Muslim world, he’s a hero and a fellow traveler.  To anybody young—just about—in the United States, he’s a man of great moral principle who was willing to go to prison” (Sports Business Journal, by Josh Ourand, May 18, 2015, p. 30).

In Payne’s mind, at the time, Ali was a draft dodger.  Ebersol countered that Ali was a man of conviction, not a draft dodger.  The decision process took about five months before Payne finally agreed that Ali was indeed the best person to light the flame.

On July 19, 1996, Holyfield ran the Olympic torch into Centennial Olympic Stadium and handed it to Janet Evans, an American Olympic swimmer.  Evans eventually handed the torch to…Muhammad Ali.  Ali’s appearance had been a heavily guarded secret between Payne and Ebersol.  Even NBC announcers Dick Enberg and Bob Costas did not know until Ali appeared on screen.  When the spotlight shone on Ali holding the torch, people were in awe: “You could almost hear a global gasp,” according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Steve Hummer.

Ali stood with the torch in his right hand, with his left hand clinched and shaking because of the Parkinson’s disease.  For a few anxious moments, Ali held the flaming torch next to the small plug that would send the flame up the long wire to the Olympic cauldron. The plug would not light.  Ali remained steadfast, undaunted.  Finally, the plug lit and the cauldron burst ablaze.  Ali had once again stood victorious before thousands of fans in Atlanta and millions more across the world.  Payne would later state that while he and Ebersol had put Ali back on the world stage, Ali helped put Atlanta on the world stage.  Ali and Atlanta had once again benefited the other.

From the fight with Quarry in 1970, to the charity fight with Mayor Jackson in 1975, to the reward money in the child murder cases in 1981, to the 1996 Olympics, Ali and Atlanta forged a symbiotic relationship and love affair that lasted until Ali’s death.  From all of us in Atlanta, rest in peace, Champ.