Muhammad Ali’s Storied Return To Boxing — And The Role Atlanta Played

Jan 14, 2020

By 1970, Muhammad Ali’s boxing career was in decline. Convicted for draft evasion in 1967, Ali lost his license to fight in all 50 states and had become a polarizing figure across the country.

That was before a group of key players managed to jump through a legal loophole and stage a comeback fight — in Atlanta.

The twists and turns behind Ali’s return to the boxing ring are the focus of the film Ali’s Comeback: The Untold Story, which screens at the Atlanta History Center on Friday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. Film director Art Jones and co-producer Yahya McClain joined On Second Thought to share the highlights from the film and the storied boxer’s return to fighting.

Jones was inspired to make the movie by an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published when Ali died in 2016. After his promoters tried to secure a license in dozens of cities across the country to no avail, they were finally able to secure a license thanks in large part to Leroy Johnson, the first Georgia State assemblyman since Reconstruction. 

Though Johnson was not a big fan of boxing himself, his respect for Ali prompted him to dig into Georgia’s legal code and reach out to other Georgia politicians, including then Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell and Governor Lester Maddox. 

While both Massell and Maddox initially agreed to have Ali fight in Georgia, the backlash to the controversial boxer resuscitating his career in Atlanta led Maddox to rescind his approval. However, the fight was still able to continue because, in the state of Georgia at the time, it was decided that municipalities have authority on managing incoming events in their cities, not the governor.  

Meanwhile, Ali’s team was still in search of an opponent after Joe Frazier, the current heavyweight champion at the time, dropped out of the fight against Ali. The team eventually managed to secure a fight with Jerry Quarry at Morehouse College on October 26, 1970.

Excitement for the event rippled through Atlanta, especially within the city’s African-American community.

“There was just so much hype around his returning the ring after being in exile for three long years,” Jones shared. “They came to pay homage to the greatest athlete of the 20th century.”

Ali defeated Quarry in three rounds, and his career relaunched from there. Jones shared that Ali developed a special relationship to the city of Atlanta for the rest of his life, culminating when he lit the cauldron at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

“I looked at that footage while we were editing the film several times,” Jones said. “Even though it was a seemingly very brief moment, I thought it was a very telling moment.”

Ali’s Comeback: The Untold Story will screen at the Atlanta History Center this Friday, Jan. 17 at 7pm.

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