‘Fight Night’ podcast travels back 50 years to Muhammad Ali fight in Atlanta

Muhammad Ali training for his 1970 fight with Jack Quarry in Atlanta. Credit: AJC archive
Muhammad Ali training for his 1970 fight with Jack Quarry in Atlanta. Credit: AJC archive

Credit: AJC archive photo

Credit: AJC archive photo

When robbers steal from bad guys at a post-fight Atlanta party, what happens next?

A half-century ago, Muhammad Ali had gone three years without fighting after opting out of the Vietnam War as an Islamic conscientious objector. It was a hugely controversial move that made him a pariah with boxing officials.

But Georgia state Sen. Leroy Johnson, the most powerful Black elected official in the South at the time, enabled Ali to fight in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry, dubbed “The Great White Hope.”

The event brought worldwide attention to the city as celebrities galore — from Sidney Poitier to Arthur Ashe to Diana Ross — attended the fight, then partied at a VIP gala at the new Hyatt Regency downtown. But an alternative party that attracted hustlers nationwide went awry when masked men with shotguns stripped partygoers naked, piled them in a basement and robbed them of at least $1 million in cash, jewelry and other valuables.

This audacious heist is the focal point of a new podcast “Fight Night” hosted by Atlanta resident Jeff Keating, a 1989 graduate of Decatur High School. Keating worked with iHeartRadio’s robust podcast operation (“Stuff You Should Know") and Atlanta producer Will Packer (“Girls Trip," “Straight Outta Compton”).

Packer, in an interview, said he first heard about this 1970 story two years ago from V-103 host Kenny Burns and found it fascinating. “We actually thought it could be a movie," he said. “We still think it has viability as a movie.” But the opportunity to turn it into a true-crime podcast came up first.

The audio medium, Packer said, “allows your mind to fill the space, to paint a picture. This narrative comes out very clear and clean and is hopefully enthralling."

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Keating, a documentarian, has been working on this project for far longer than Packer.

Two decades ago, when Keating was a struggling screenwriter, his father told him a story about the heist, which happened just before he left on his honeymoon. Intrigued, Keating went to Decatur Public Library and began reading old story clippings via microfiche. He read that Gordon “Chicken Man” Williams — a hustler who hosted the party — had died just days after the party in what was dubbed “a contract hit” by someone who had been robbed.

But J.D. Hudson, one of Atlanta’s first Black detectives who investigated the case 32 years earlier, told Keating the truth: Williams was actually alive and well, and had become a pastor. Was “Chicken Man” actually involved in the robbery or merely an innocent bystander?

Keating interviewed both of them, as well as many other key players in hopes of eventually creating both a documentary and a scripted film, imagining Don Cheadle or Jamie Foxx in key roles.

Over the years, different people would buy the rights to his screenplay, including Dallas Austin, but much to Keating’s frustration, it could never get off the ground. This is not uncommon in Hollywood.

But “whenever I felt like it was dead, some executive would call and be interested in it,” he said.

Keating was thrilled to finally find the right partners in iHeartRadio and Packer. “It was a pleasant surprise,” he said.

Muhammad Ali hits Jerry Quarry with a hard right during their fight Oct. 26, 1970, in Atlanta. Ali was declared the winner in the non-title match. AP FILE
Muhammad Ali hits Jerry Quarry with a hard right during their fight Oct. 26, 1970, in Atlanta. Ali was declared the winner in the non-title match. AP FILE

All these years later, Keating still gets excited recounting what happened, featuring real-life characters in the story — the bootleggers, the number runners, the pimps — who possessed colorful nicknames. Besides “Chicken Man,” there were folks like “Short Papa,” “Buttermilk” and “Fireball.”

The party was such a big deal, engraved invitations circulated as far away as New York City as if it were a wedding or political event. The event featured gambling tables, which is why so many attendees carried so much cash on them.

The brazen robbery involved hundreds of victims, including many out-of-town drug dealers, gun runners and gamblers, yet, as Keating noted with amazement, not a single bullet was shot.

Hudson told Keating that after the fact, it became a race between the police and the New York City gangsters on who would catch the alleged robbers first. In the end, the gangsters wreaked their revenge.

Gordon "Chicken Man" Williams, an Atlanta hustler who hosted a big after-party following an Ali fight in 1970.  AJC FILE
Gordon "Chicken Man" Williams, an Atlanta hustler who hosted a big after-party following an Ali fight in 1970. AJC FILE

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution archive

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution archive

This robbery happened, Keating noted, amid swirling changes in Atlanta after all the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s.

Keating tapped Georgia State University African American history professor Maurice Hobson as an adviser and expert to provide context during the podcast. Hobson penned the 2019 book “The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta.”

“Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen had run on a platform of turning Atlanta into a sports and entertainment destination,” said Hobson, having opened the new Municipal Auditorium and drawing the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Falcons into town. “This fight was a way to showcase the new American south in a city trying to boom."

While Atlanta boasted a Black elite that often negotiated with the white power structure, a huge swath of Blacks in the city were struggling to rise above poverty. With so many legitimate avenues closed, many Black entrepreneurs found hustles to make a living, be it the lottery (called “The Bug”) or bootlegging or drug smuggling.

He also aligned the connection between New York and Atlanta. As part of the “Great Migration,” many Georgia Black folks ventured to New York City for fresh opportunities. In 1970, family members frequently migrated between the two cities, which is why the Atlanta party drew so much attention up north. “Atlanta was burgeoning territory,” Hobson said. “Some folks wanted to come down and assert themselves.”

After the victims of the robbery scattered, Hudson had a hard time finding witnesses willing to speak about what happened. “They couldn’t draw attention to the informal economies going on in Atlanta,” Hobson said. “They also didn’t want to admit they got robbed. Then bodies started showing up. These Atlanta gangsters weren’t weak. It was the gangster code, the G Code. Someone had to pay."

Former state Sen. Leroy Johnson’s ticket to the Muhammad Ali vs. Jerry Quarry fight in 1970. Johnson used his political contacts to smooth the way for Ali to fight in Atlanta for his first fight after denouncing the Vietnam War. BEN GRAY/AJC file
Former state Sen. Leroy Johnson’s ticket to the Muhammad Ali vs. Jerry Quarry fight in 1970. Johnson used his political contacts to smooth the way for Ali to fight in Atlanta for his first fight after denouncing the Vietnam War. BEN GRAY/AJC file

Jeff Keating is the host and creator of the new podcast "Fight Night." Courtesy of Jeff Winner
Jeff Keating is the host and creator of the new podcast "Fight Night." Courtesy of Jeff Winner

Credit: Jeff Winning

Credit: Jeff Winning

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