A journey of a thousand miles, say the Chinese, must begin with a single step. For Muhammad Ali, cut off from the ring that made him an international phenomenon and perhaps the most discussed athlete of our time, the way back to excellence—or even a modicum of it—was every bit of a thousand miles. But Monday night in Atlanta, against Jerry Quarry, he took much more than a single, faltering step. Before 5,000 people, to many of whom he was a symbol of release, Ali reclaimed his eminence and reputation; few had doubted that he had ever relinquished them.
With a cracking right hand, the speed of which seemed hardly impaired since he last fought, Ali cut Quarry over the left eye in the middle of the third round, a wound which would require 11 deep sutures and would not allow the Californian to come out for the fourth round. "It was not a butt," Quarry said before being stitched up, "and I don't want anybody saying that it was. It was a right hand." Referee Tony Perez did not stop the fight. It was Quarry's chief cornerman Teddy Bentham who did so, and with reason.
Quarry, puzzled by Ali's unorthodox style and unwilling to commit himself, was unable to launch an effective attack. About all he could do was counter with winging left hooks, most of which missed or were brushed off, although he did land one solid punch—a right hand to the body in the second round. "If he didn't get cut," said Ali, "I think it might have gone 10 rounds." Indeed, Quarry seemed to be gaining confidence until the blood began streaming down his face.
Confident, too, though hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania, were Joe Frazier and his manager, Yank Durham. In training for a bout with light heavyweight champion Bob Foster on Nov. 18, Frazier went to sleep long before the Atlanta fight started but was awakened by Durham and told of the result. Said Durham: "I thought Quarry would put up a much stronger fight, and I don't think he fought too smart a fight, either." He insisted Frazier would handle Ali much differently. "Were going to go after him. We won't let him run around the ring. We'll make him run."
Ali, eschewing his usual predictions, poetry and nonsense before a bout that made the TV and ancillary rights perhaps the richest of any sporting event, did not altogether forsake his penchant for mysticism. On the day of the fight he drew a picture. It portrayed Quarry in the ring, yellow hair bristling and stars surrounding his head while the referee shouted, "Stop, Ali, it's all over. Go to your corner now." In an aisle was Governor Lester Maddox, and he was beseeching anyone who would listen: "Stop the fight. Stop it."
Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, also contributed his own prediction. Before putting the gloves on Ali, he wrote "third round" inside of them. Afterward Dundee said, "He was so close to being the Ali of 3½ years ago that it was scary."
In one sense the fight was indecisive, simply because of our uncertainty that Ali could go any distance. The quick appraisal that can be made—and that only because we have not seen him for so long—is that he does not seem to be pulling his head back as quickly as he used to. A much maligned move in his early days, this is one of the most vital aspects of his defense. Quarry did reach him on occasion, but was never in proper balance to be effective. Excepting this flaw, all else about Ali seemed to be intact—the rocking jab, the beautiful combinations and his general ring intelligence. It was more than most of the crowd, which comprised some of the most bizarre people ever seen at a fight, had expected. From every corner of the country and the world they came, in brilliant plumage, the most startling assembly of black power and black money ever displayed.
Occasional eruptions from Governor Lester Maddox and a modest peep from the woman commander of the American Legion amounted to the only hostility in Atlanta, a city about which it is often said, "There's nothing wrong with it except that it's surrounded by Georgia."
Despite the relative tranquillity embracing the fight, city officials, Ali himself and many blacks remained apprehensive. At the house of State Senator Leroy Johnson, where Ali was staying, visitors were greeted by men wearing guns. In the city every available policeman was assigned to duty.
Ali and Quarry generally did their best to soothe anxieties and lower temperatures. Conduct in the two camps was unimpeachable, indeed almost convivial. The whole Quarry clan, Okie in origin, its distrust seeping from the restlessness that has shaped its life, was in town most of the week. One afternoon, while Muhammad worked, there were nine Quarrys sitting grimly and stolidly in a row, reminiscent of some contemporary version of the Grant Wood painting American Gothic. When Muhammad finished in the ring, Quarry's mother—a strong yet gentle woman—and his grandmother walked over to the ring and spoke a few words to Ali. Muhammad took the mother's hand and said. "You can't be Jerry's mama, you too young. I don't believe it." The comment reflected a certain genuine softness that is often noticeable in Muhammad, and it certainly corresponded with his mood in the days before the fight, most of which he spent in meditation, seemingly hypnotized by the flickering light of the boxing films he had projected on a torn sheet tacked to his living room wall.
While watching the movies, he fantasized in his small lakeside cottage about what the night of the fight would be like, how he would look, how jolted the world would be. "I want to shock people, blind 'em," he said.
On the night itself, if he was not shocking, he was certainly astonishing. Would he fight Frazier quickly, he was then asked, or would he need another bout? "I don't know—if he's ready, I'm ready," said Ali, appearing more fatigued and enervated than usual. He was talking of the bout for which the bidding is already up to $2 million.
Most observers clearly approached this fight with wariness, uncertain as to whether they would see the reemergence of the strangest and most lurid comet in sport or the sad, last splutter of its disappearing tail. What they did see was an artist, bringing honor to his craft.
His cut treated but still oozing blood, a dejected Quarry bows to the inevitable decision.
Catching Quarry moving in, Ali slams the short right that marked the beginning of the end.