This weekend, in celebration of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic US Marathon Trials in Atlanta, the iconic Olympic cauldron will be lit for the first time in decades. Back in 1996, it was the great Muhammad Ali who lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics. At one point, Muhammad Ali had vowed that he would never have anything to do with the Olympics. So why was he chosen to light the cauldron? And why did he accept? Answer: Atlanta is the reason Ali was able to make a comeback and reclaim his title.
Muhammad Ali was desperate. The year was 1970, and the self-proclaimed greatest boxer of all time had been idle for more than three years because of his ongoing lawsuit against the federal government. Stripped of his heavyweight title, the 28-year-old was spending his prime running up exorbitant legal expenses. A reported 22 states refused to grant him a boxing license, among them California, whose then-governor, Ronald Reagan, was quoted as saying, “That draft dodger will never fight in my state, period.”
The notion that Ali—a conscientious objector who was a member of the Nation of Islam—would make his comeback in the deep South at the height of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War seemed laugh-out-loud ridiculous. After all, Georgia’s annual sports highlight was the whites-only Masters golf tournament in Augusta; its most honored athlete was Ty Cobb, the fiercely racist baseball Hall of Famer; and its governor, Lester Maddox, was a segregationist. Not to mention that the state didn’t even have an active boxing commissioner.
But thanks to one fortuitous telephone call to a local businessman—and the political savvy of State Senator Leroy Johnson, the most powerful African-American elected official in the South during the civil rights era—Atlanta stunned the world by granting Ali a boxing license and playing host to his return on October 26, 1970.
New York-based attorney Robert Kassel, whose Sports Action company had put on the Frazier-Ellis championship fight, financed numerous attempts to get Ali back in action. All efforts failed. In August, Kassel decides to try his father-in-law, Harry Pett, who owned an Atlanta-based company called Pett Spice Products.
In 1963, attorney Leroy Johnson became the first African-American elected to the state legislature since Reconstruction. An Atlanta native and Morehouse College alum, 42-year-old Johnson was one of the first politicians to recognize how Atlanta’s emerging black majority will alter the city’s power structure. Pett and Johnson were the perfect duo.
Johnson was sure he could get Ali a license to fight and he knew that the only legal body to make that decision was the mayor of Atlanta and the Board of Aldermen. He was a friend of Sam Massell and had assisted him in getting elected. And members of the board were his friends because he had assisted them in getting elected, too.
Johnson, Pett, and Jesse Hill quickly form a company called House of Sports to put on the fight. But can Atlanta pull it off?
Yes. Atlanta did pull it off. The fight sells out the 5,000-seat Civic Auditorium, with ringside tickets going for $100. Some 205 theaters in the United States and Canada, including a facility at Atlanta’s Sports Arena, broadcast the fight via closed circuit; millions more tune in around the world. The total gate: an estimated $3 million. And Ali wins…and he’s back in the game. Thanks to the ATL. The fight also set the stage for Atlanta to host future sporting events.
That’s the short version. The whole story is filled with drama, strategery, HBCU’s, and Altanta’s civil rights heroes. Get the whole story here: