Life with Gracie: The Atlanta fight that put Muhammad Ali back in ring

Leroy Johnson was not particularly fond of boxing, but as a Christian and a Morehouse man, he had a deep respect for anyone who knew what he believed in and was willing to fight for it.

That's the thing Johnson said he admired most about Muhammad Ali, the thing he will always remember.

“He was willing to fight for what was right even if it meant going against the system,” Johnson said. “He had a tremendous obsession with the notion that people should help those who were less fortunate than they.”

In the days since the heavyweight champion's death on Friday at age 74, Johnson has thought of little else besides the moment Muhammad Ali went from someone he admired from afar to the man he loved and respected.

It happened in the spring of 1970. Johnson was an Atlanta attorney and the first African-American elected to the Georgia Senate. Ali, who’d refused to comply with the draft, had been sentenced to five years in prison (the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the conviction), fined $10,000 and stripped of his boxing license in the prime of his career, no longer able to fight professionally. That was true even outside the country because in a moment of sheer pettiness, the State Department took away his passport.

“I thought that was extremely unfair,” Johnson said.

He was in his west Atlanta law office one day when he got a call from Harry Pett, who believed he could get a license for Ali if he could find a city that would allow him to fight again.

Johnson didn’t know but asked his staff to research the issue, to see if there was any Georgia law that addressed the question of boxing.

“To my utter surprise, there was no law in Georgia at that time,” he said. “It was up to the municipality to determine whether to grant a boxing license.”

He called Pett back and gave him the news. By then, 50 cities had refused.

Are you sure? Pett asked.

Johnson assured him his staff had checked the law. It was up to Atlanta’s mayor and City Council.

Days later, Johnson and Pett met and drew up a contract, but Johnson’s fight was just beginning. So many people felt his efforts were an exercise in futility. One member of the chamber of commerce told him he was wasting his time.

What makes you think you can get his license? the man asked.

“I don’t know what avenue the others took,” Johnson told him, “but I do know that none of them were graduates of Morehouse College. At Morehouse, the word ‘can’t’ wasn’t part of our vocabulary.”

He also believed with the right amount of fire in his belly, he could do things that other people couldn’t.

Johnson headed to Mayor Sam Massell’s office. He considered Massell a friend, but the mayor was listing reasons why he couldn’t pull it off, including opposition from the Ku Klux Klan.

When Massell finished, Johnson’s only response was this: “You dance with the one who brung you.”

Massell smiled and offered Johnson his blessing. He warned him, however, that the governor might not agree.

Johnson, though, was able to appeal to Gov. Lester Maddox’s sense of fairness. Every man deserves a second chance, he told him.

On with the fight, Maddox told him.

The news didn’t sit well, however, with the Klan. That same night, shots were fired into Johnson’s home and Maddox retreated.

“Ali will not fight in Georgia,” he told Johnson during a meeting the next day. “Things have changed.”

Johnson called his old friend and former Gov. Carl Sanders and asked for help. Later that evening, Sanders called and told him to read the next day's newspaper. I think you'll be satisfied.

The state attorney general had ruled. Maddox had no authority to stop the fight.

“I knew then we had a chance,” Johnson said.

They could put Ali back in the ring but with whom. Who would fight him?

Johnson got on a plane to Philadelphia, where he met with Joe Frazier’s managers.

They agreed Frazier would fight if Johnson could first arrange an exhibition bout.

That worked for Johnson, but he needed a venue away from the city center. He reached out to his alma mater, and they agreed to host the fight in the Morehouse College gym.

The match went off without a hitch in front of a packed house, but Frazier had backed out. Ali would beat challenger George Hill instead.

Three weeks later on Oct. 26, 1970, Johnson sat ringside in Section C, Row 4, Seat 4, next to his wife.

This time in the municipal auditorium. Actor Sidney Poitier and a long list of other celebrities were there. So were Massell, 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.

And Ali was ready. In a bout that promised 15 rounds, Jerry Quarry lasted only three. After a jab to his right eye, the doctors stopped the fight and declared Ali the winner.

Now Johnson was hearing on the late night news that the champ had died, taken down by a respiratory illness complicated by his Parkinson’s disease.

“I knew he was sick but didn’t think it was at the point of death,” Johnson said. “I was devastated.”

And then there on the screen, Johnson got a glimpse of the Champ once more, bragging like he always did about his boxing skills, about his good looks.

“It brought back so many memories of him,” he said.

The weeks he stayed at Johnson’s lake house preparing for the fights, the talks they had and the moment right after Ali’s fight with Quarry.

You did what nobody else could do, he remembered Ali telling him. I will forever be grateful. Here, take these.

Ali handed the senator his boxing gloves.

“That was something else,” Johnson said.