For the first time in more than three years, Muhammad Ali, still heavyweight champion of the world to many of boxing's devout, stepped publicly into a ring one night last week and sparred for a total of eight rounds with a succession of three opponents.
The roof did not fall in. No one threw a bomb. Fire and brimstone did not rain down from heaven and no one was turned into a pillar of salt. There wasn't even a picket outside the Morehouse College gym in Atlanta—just a pretty girl distributing election campaign pamphlets. Not a peep of protest had been uttered—in Atlanta or elsewhere—during the few days of promotion that preceded the event.
Thus were confounded a horde of timid politicians in some 70 communities from one end of the U.S. to the other. All of them had blanched at the thought of offending veterans' organizations by permitting Ali, who had refused induction into the armed forces, to practice his trade in their areas. Because of them, Ali had not had a fight since March 22, 1967, when he knocked out Zora Folley in the seventh round at Madison Square Garden. He had boxed six rounds of an exhibition in Detroit in June of that year but, despite the efforts of scores of promoters and would-be promoters, skilled and unskilled alike, no community would sit still for an Ali match. By this default—and a series of victories over lesser fighters, including one ex-sparring partner of Ali's—Joe Frazier became listed officially as heavyweight champion.
At first, the idea had been to match Frazier with that former sparring partner, Jimmy Ellis, the winner to meet Ali. Then Ali was declared a nonperson by the World Boxing Association. And, finally, Ali proclaimed himself out of the action after a succession of more or less comical attempts to stage decisive fights in a variety of venues. All tries were balked for a conglomerate of reasons that showed no special pattern except the timorousness of politicians, the noisy professional patriotism of various groups and occasional promotional ineptitude. In only two cities, Detroit and Houston, were contracts for a fight actually signed, and these were voided by political pressure. In the end Ali said, "I'll believe I have a fight when I'm in the ring and I hear the bell." He then retired to a handsome house on Philadelphia's Main Line, to the composition of his memoirs and to a lecture-circuit romp that would be the envy of a Bennett Cerf.
Now, 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. In Atlanta, naturally. And with Joe Frazier committed to an engagement with Bob Foster, it will be against Jerry Quarry or Oscar Bonavena. After all but abandoning any notion of ever fighting again, Ali now has clear evidence that he will be accepted in Atlanta. If all goes well there, he asks himself, can Madison Square Garden be far behind?
In the last year or so he had been a most subdued fellow compared to his customary ebullience, the clowning and the doggerel forgotten. But at a reception for him on the night before the exhibition in Atlanta he began to loosen up, to talk of the future as if there really was one and to think that he actually did have a chance to regain undisputed possession of the title taken from him because he had clung to his Black Muslim faith and refused induction.
The exhibition itself was arranged with masterly regard for possible consequences. State Senator Leroy Johnson, first black man to sit in the Georgia legislature in 92 years, and Harry Pett, a white Atlanta merchant, joined forces to form the House of Sports, Inc., which served as local sponsor of the event. They tied in with Mike Malitz, president of Sports Action, Inc., Princeton man and third-generation boxing promoter, who will supply the experienced management to handle the intricacies of ancillary rights in future bouts.
Previous attempts to get Ali into a ring were hardly as well organized, though none was more imaginative than that of Murry Woroner, the South Miami inventor of the computerized fight in which Ali was pitted against Rocky Marciano on closed-circuit television. (The computer said Marciano won by a knockout.) Woroner decided that he could get Ali into the ring with Frazier or Ellis or—making a tournament out of it—with both. Woroner had a couple of ideas as to how to stage the fight, undaunted by the fact that South Miami's only arena seats a mere 500 and, of these, 300 would have to be turned over to the world sporting press. Such an exclusive affair would have commanded wild prices at the gate, to be sure, but not nearly enough. Woroner was counting, of course, on the take from closed-circuit TV.
He also considered an alternate plan, to be used if it should appear that riotous picketing might make Plan A inoperative. Under Plan B no one but a film crew, the fighters, their corners, a physician and officials would know where or when the fight was to be held. Since it would take two weeks to develop and distribute the film, security would demand that all hands, including the fighters, be locked up for a fortnight after the fight. Woroner was utterly convinced that he would have been able to keep the result a secret for that period.
Both the Frazier and Ellis camps at first expressed interest in the idea, but they soon withdrew after talking matters over with the harder business heads of the boxing Establishment, and Woroner's bubble went bust. Other sites were considered, including Boley, Okla., an all-black community of 720 whose original settlers were freed slaves. But when Ali heard that the Boley plan was to hold the fight outdoors in a rodeo arena in January and the only toilet facilities were outdoors, too, he backed off. "It would be disgraceful for a man of my ability to fight in a place like that," he said.
Last week, with the likes of South Miami and Boley well behind him, but not yet fully persuaded about Atlanta, Ali arrived at the airport in a quiet mood. Senator Johnson and Harry Pett led a delegation that met him as he stepped off the plane.
"Atlanta is too busy to hate," Pett said when asked why the city apparently had accepted the idea of a bout so calmly. "It's the finest city in the world."
Ali said he weighed 221 pounds and would need "about four weeks" to get into fighting trim. Asked his opinion of Frazier, he said, "He can't compare with Floyd Patterson in boxing ability and speed and he would not be as awkward to fight as Karl Mildenberger, who is a southpaw. Both of them are faster than Joe Frazier," he added.
Next night, in the steaming, sweltering gym where the temperature may well have hit 100° and where the last distinguished visitor had been Emperor Haile Selassie six months previously, Ali doffed a short white robe and responded almost solemnly to the cheers of a near-capacity crowd of 2,700. Among them were Martin Luther King Sr. and members of his family.
In Ali's corner were his trainer, Angelo Dundee, and his longtime friend Drew (Bundini) Brown. After his protracted layoff, no one expected much of Ali and, indeed, Dundee urged him to limit the show to six rounds instead of the scheduled eight. But Ali insisted on fulfilling his commitment. He looked a bit jowly, and when the robe came off he showed a trifle of fat about his middle, but it was nothing that could not be worked off in a couple of weeks.
His first opponent was Rufus Brassell, who wore black trunks, red headgear and a worried look. But, though Ali floated like a butterfly, he did not sting like a bee in this exhibition. He sympathizes with the hard life of sparring partners and never has been known to knock one down.
"We're going to make it a real fight," he had said the evening before, but that was just promotional pap. Instead, he drifted about the ring with hands down, flicking out an occasional jab and showing that his famous footwork still is quite possibly the best ever seen in a heavyweight. In the second round, he threw some more jabs, lightly, and then a swift one-two.
During the next two-round bout, with Johnny Hudgins, he allowed himself to take some punches, and seemed to be enjoying the exercise. He missed a few of his own, but this was clearly on purpose, just to show how close he could come to his man without actually hitting him. It disappointed the crowd that Ali was giving them so little action, and at the end of the first round of his four-rounder against George Hill there were scattered boos. In the second round he deliberately maneuvered himself into a corner, took a few blows on his arms and the top of his head, then punched his way out of the situation with a few fast stabs to the head and the body. He ended the third round with a 15-second flurry of punches, including what must have been some of the fastest combinations he ever has thrown. And finally, to the delight of the crowd, in the fourth round he demonstrated the Ali shuffle, followed by blows to the body and head.
"I'm not in condition for Frazier yet," he said in the dressing room, where he sat naked because of the heat, "but all those fellows tonight were faster than Joe Frazier." He confessed that if he had been in the ring with Frazier, in a real fight, he would have been so weary in the eighth round that he would have had to come down off his toes and box flat-footed.
Dundee was totally delighted with the performance. "It was all there," he said. "Everything. He can still fake with the hip, the hand and the shoulder. By October 26 he'll be a superheavyweight."
The following day Senator Johnson was at the airport waiting for a plane to take him to Philadelphia and a conference with Frazier's manager, Yancey Durham. (The conference, it turned out, was not immediately productive.) Why, he was asked, after so many cities—north and south—had rejected such a match, was Atlanta so unconcerned about the prospect of an Ali fight?
"I think it all goes back to Ralph McGill," he said, paying tribute to the late liberal editor of the Atlanta Constitution. "He taught whites and blacks to get along with each other. There have been some demonstrations here, but black and white leaders have had sense enough to sit down with each other and let the conference table resolve our difficulties.
"We've made greater progress in Atlanta than any other city in the South in the past 10 years."
Boxing fans, at least, would have to agree.