As surprising as it may seem for Georgia, a long-Red Southern state, to be determining the fate of the U.S. Senate next month, that pales in comparison to the situation 50 years ago this fall when the long-segregated state became the unlikely locale for deposed heavyweight champ, convicted draft evader and outspoken Black Muslim Muhammad Ali to begin his now-legendary boxing comeback.
How this came about — and how Ali could well have become just a footnote in sports history but for the efforts of a small group of Black Atlantans, supported by their White Jewish mayor — is the subject of a new documentary, Ali’s Comeback: The Untold Story.
Ali, stripped of his title more than three and a half years earlier, is denied a license to fight current champ Joe Frasier in state after state, often due to pressure from the US Justice Department. Or, in the case of Nevada, Howard Hughes.
Then, when things look most dire, boxing promoter/attorney Robert Kassell learns that Georgia does not have a boxing commission.
The 80-minute film features interviews with Kassell and others who made the seemingly impossible happen. They include attorney Leroy Johnson, then a state Senator, and Sam Massell, then Atlanta’s Mayor.
Johnson, who is Black, gets Massell’s approval for the fight (via a $50,000 donation to fight drug abuse) and then meets with Georgia’s staunch segregationist governor, Lester Maddox – and gets his approval too!
But the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council strongly object. Shots are fired into Johnson’s house. Maddox reverses his decision. The state Attorney General then rules that Maddox has no say in the matter, since state law leaves boxing matters to municipalities.
Another snag develops when Frasier turns down the fight. Kassell turns to “Great White Hope” Jerry Quarry, who initially also spurns the offer, but is persuaded to do the right thing by his wife Kathleen, who recounts their conversation in a powerful remembrance.
“Muhammad Ali will soon reemerge from the shadows of the boxing world,” the film’s narrator declares, ”in a Southern city that no one could have ever predicted.”
After the fight, which Ali wins handily, he thanks Johnson with a gift of that night’s boxing gloves (displayed by Johnson, above). The floodgates open in other states, and Ali is on his way to a marvelous second act. Then comes the highlight of a post-boxing third act: Ali’s s memorable 1996 lighting of the Olympic cauldron – back in Atlanta, of course.
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