Atlanta Civic Leader Played Instrumental, Largely Forgotten Role Getting Muhammad Ali Back in the Ring

By now you’ve probably read (or read of) at least a dozen paeans to Muhammad Ali, who died on Friday.

What’s become essentially a footnote in his life is how important Atlanta was to his career. And no, I’m not talking about how he lit the Olympic Cauldron–iconic though that moment may have been.

In the aftermath of the embarrassing way the boxing world ostracized Ali for opposing the foolish, utterly pointless and disastrous Vietnam War, State Senator Leroy Johnson got Ali his first boxing license for an exhibition fight at the Morehouse College gym.  Ali’s first professional bout after that was at Atlanta’s Municipal Auditorium where Ali earned a TKO over Jerry Quarry in a night that featured three(!) heavyweight undercard fights.

This time in the municipal auditorium. Actor Sidney Poitier and a long list of other celebrities were there. So were [Atlanta mayor Sam] Massell, [Governor Carl] Sanders and other local and state dignitaries.

Johnson was moved by the sight. In many ways, he felt like Ali himself. He was floating like a butterfly.

“People came from all over the country and state to see the fight,” Johnson said. “The auditorium, which held 5,000 people, was packed.”

Johnson had done what no one else could do. Not in Chicago. Not in New York City or Los Angeles. He had returned Muhammad Ali to the boxing ring.

“That was a great feeling,” he said.


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