IT began with a macabre warning to a draft dodger to stay out of Atlanta and ended with an audacious, million-dollar heist.
Fifty years ago, Muhammad Ali emerged from three-and-a-half years of exile to reboot his heavyweight career in the fight that didn’t just fan the flames of public opinion in the United States: It was a bonfire of inhibition.
On the day Ali left his Miami training camp to head for his second coming in Atlanta against Californian slugger Jerry Quarry, a gift box was delivered to his hotel.
When he opened it, the package contained a small, black, dead dog and a 14-word note warning him to keep out of Georgia because draft dodgers like him were likely to suffer the same fate.
Ali had refused conscription into the US army to fight in the Vietnam war, famously declaring: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
Those eight words chimed with pacifists around the world, but in America Ali’s principles cut little ice among the warmongers.
They didn’t call him the ‘Greatest.’ They regarded him as a traitor.
Promoter Harold Conrad knocked on the doors of more than 20 states, but none would issue Ali with a licence to box again – including the governor of California, who would become US President 10 years later.
Ronald Reagan vetoed the fight, insisting: “Forget it – that draft dodger will never fight in my state.”
It seemed nobody would touch Ali’s comeback with a bargepole until Lester Maddox, the governor of Georgia, found himself behind in the polls and resorted to populism as an expedient vehicle for harvesting votes.
When the match was made, contracts were signed and the City Auditorium in Atlanta was confirmed as the venue for Ali to roll away the stone, a so-called “army of soul” made a pilgrimage to the deep south.
Among his celebrity cheerleaders that night were Hollywood royalty Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Diana Ross and the Supremes.
The astonishing story of a legend’s comeback is chronicled in boxing superfan Russell Routledge’s book Ali: The Fight America Didn’t Want – with chilling detail about the after-party robbery which left dozens of $100 ringside ticket-holders without their watches, jewellery and cash.
Routledge was the disciple from Grainger Park Boxing Club on Tyneside who struck up a lifelong friendship with Ali when the Greatest made a surprise visit to the north-east to have his marriage blessed at a local mosque.
Now 62, Routledge subsequently wrote dozens of letters to Ali, often receiving hand-written replies to his fan mail until the three-times world heavyweight champion invited him to stay at his Los Angeles mansion where Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky III movie was filmed.
In his book, Routledge recalls the violent post-script to Ali’s three-round stoppage of Quarry as a well-heeled cast of gangsters, racketeers and high rollers descended on a handsome property on Handy Drive, in Atlanta’s well-to-do suburb of Collier Heights.
Big shots who had been hanging out at the Regency-Hyatt hotel all week had been issued with invitations to the post-fight party.
Ali’s celebrations were confined to the giddy all-nighter at the Regency-Hyatt – others who went to Handy Drive were not so lucky.
As soon as guests stepped through the front door, a hoodlum would reveal the shooter concealed beneath his jacket and victims would be led to a basement room where they were stripped of their clothes and valuables.
Piles of watches and jewellery, bundles of cash and expensive furs were stacked in the middle of the floor and eventually bundled into pillowcases before the robbers absconded into the graveyard shift.
Routledge said: “As soon as rolls of cash and small mountains of jewellery had been swept up and ‘bagged’, more frightened faces were led down into the basement.
“As the piles of valuables and discarded clothing became bigger, so did the mass of terrified flesh. The basement bandits were forced eventually to improvise, and they did this by ordering each freshly disrobed person to lay on top of someone who had already been stripped and fleeced.
“It was said the robbers’ work took about four hours, but it was also believed that the looting would maybe have gone on longer if there had been any more available space left to stack the bodies.
“Estimates ranged anywhere between 80 and 200 people laid flat and stacked up in the basement. Anyone who dared to look up received the butt of a 12-gauge on their heads.”
The fight itself was not exactly a peep show, but Quarry was cut in the opening round and the gash above his right eye was spilling more ketchup than a Sam Peckinpah movie by the time it was stopped.
Five months later, Ali would lose a unanimous points decision after a memorable brawl with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, a defeat he would reverse at the same venue in 1971 and in their epic Thrilla in Manila.
But the next time he topped the bill in Atlanta, Ali was a quivering, shambling shell of greatness, consumed by the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, as he opened the 1996 Olympic Games.
*Ali: The Fight America Didn’t Want, by Russell Routledge, Amberley Publishing