Do you know that during Ali’s famed return to the ring, one of the world’s greatest heists took place?

Mildred Europa Taylor June 01, 2021
Muhammad Ali, right, delivers a hard right to Jerry Quarry on October 26, 1970. Photo: JOE HOLLOWAY, JR. / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Muhammad Ali had a stellar boxing career, winning the World Heavyweight Title three times. Throughout his boxing career, Ali won a total of 56 fights and lost 5, with 37 of those wins being knockouts. Outside the ring, the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest” was also a staunch civil rights activist as well as a philanthropist.

Revered for being a man of very strong principles, the boxer was in 1967 convicted for refusing to be drafted into the United States Army. He was found guilty of violating the Selective Service laws and sentenced to five years in prison. Citing his stern disapproval of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War which was ongoing at that time as well as his religious beliefs, Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces to fight in the Vietnam War.

He had his boxing license suspended and titles stripped of him by the New York State Athletic Commission as well as other boxing commissions as a result and was unable to obtain a boxing license for well over three years. In 1970, Ali made a historic comeback in Atlanta to fight Jerry Quarry in what writer Bert Sugar described as, “probably the greatest collection of black power and black money ever assembled up to that time. They weren’t boxing fans, they were idolaters.”

It was during this Muhammad Ali‐Jerry Quarry fight that one of the most shocking armed robberies the city of Atlanta had ever seen occurred. In the weeks leading up to the fight, engraved invitations circulated in New York and Atlanta which said a man named “Fireball” was organizing a birthday party for “Tobe” at 2819 Handy Drive in the Collier Heights section of Atlanta’s West End. The party was to start in the early morning hours of October 27, 1970, right after the Muhammad Ali‐Jerry Quarry fight.

Ali had been three years away from the ring and almost everyone in Atlanta, including the organizers of the Fireball birthday party, was looking forward to the comeback fight. The organizers of the party knew that Ali’s return would bring together fans from far and wide including drug dealers, pimps, and hustlers who would like to show off their wealth and would therefore bring along cash and high-priced jewelry.

Ali, who had then been blacklisted from the sport, with states unwilling to grant him a license to compete, finally made a return to the ring in 1970 thanks to Robert Kassel and others. Kassel, a New York-based attorney who had helped promote a Joe Frazier bout, asked Atlanta businessman Harry Pett, who was also his father-in-law, to speak with Georgia state senator Leroy Johnson about the possibility of organizing a comeback fight with Ali.

Senator Johnson subsequently found out that there were no laws in Georgia governing the sport of boxing. What this meant was that local municipalities were the ones to give the go-ahead to organize any sporting event. Thus, Johnson contacted Atlanta mayor Sam Massell, who said the fight could only go on if Kassel donated $50,000 of the revenue to an area drug rehabilitation program, according to one account.

Kassel agreed. The fight was scheduled for October 26, 1970. “It was a coronation; the king regaining his throne,” the late Julian Bond said of the fight in the book, “Muhammad Ali, His Life and Times. “You had all these people from the fast lane who were there; and the style of dress was fantastic. Men in ankle-length fur coats; women wearing smiles and pearls and not much else.”

Ali did not disappoint as he won by technical knockout in the third round. While the fight was ongoing, the engraved invitations for Fireball’s party, which was to start right after the fight, were still being circulated among fans. At the end of the day, while Ali was celebrating his win with his friends at Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency hotel, fight fans were also making their way to the Fireball party at a nearby private home. They were shocked at what they would find at the entrance — men in ski masks with sawed-off shotguns. “The police said that the party goers were met by the robbers as they arrived, herded into a basement and forced to disrobe and surrender their money and jewelry,” the New York Times reported.

At least 200 guests who made their way to the party had their valuables worth $100,000 taken, although officials said the figure could be more than that. Police launched an investigation into the robbery but found it tough as most of the victims were criminals themselves. Some of the victims were also not willing to speak with the police while others lived far away from town.

In the end, a Fulton County grand jury indicted three men in the robbery. The three men, each indicted on six counts of armed robbery, were McKinley Rogers Jr. of Brunswick, Ga.; James Henry Hall of Birmingham, and Houston J. Hammond of Atlanta. Only Hammond was in police custody. The other two men were nowhere to be found. It would be only a matter of time before they were dealt with by their victims.

On May 8, 1971, the two were found shot to death inside a parked Cadillac in the Bronx. A detective at the time, J.D. Hudson, told reporters, “We said last fall it was a question of who caught up with them first — the police or the victims.”

“It appears the victims got there first,” Hudson said.

Months after the infamous robbery, Ali had his draft evasion conviction overturned by the Supreme Court. He would go on to reclaim his heavyweight title in a fight against George Foreman in 1974.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 1, 2021


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