MUHAMMAD ALI was stripped of his world heavyweight titles in 1967 over his refusal to go to war in Vietnam.
“I am proud of the title world heavyweight champion,” he said as his career ground to halt after bludgeoning Zora Folley into submission. “The holder of it should at all times have the courage of his convictions and carry out those convictions, not only in the ring, but in all phases of his life. It is in light of my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted into the armed services. I do so with full realisation of its implications and possible consequences.”
His name lingered in fans’ minds as Joe Frazier and Jimmy Ellis tried to fill the gap. With that duo set to scrap for the unified title, and with the former king still locked behind legal boundaries, Ali announced his retirement, and removed himself from any speculation. And just when it seemed like we’d seen the last of him, something changed.
In September 1970 the Supreme Court ruled that young men who were opposed to war on ethical grounds should be exempt from drafting into the armed forces. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, the biggest comeback in sport was set. Ali, despite his public assurances that he was finished, may have known for a while that a return was on the cards as it emerged that he had been sparring the likes of Frazier, Ellis, Sonny Liston and British contender, Joe Bugner. The weight he had put on during his time away started to disappear. Muscles replaced flab, and excitement grew as he prepared to slip back into his trusty gloves.
After passing his medical and obtaining a licence from the New York State Athletic Commission, Ali announced rugged contender Jerry Quarry would be the man to end his inactivity on October 26 at the Muncipal Auditorium in Atlanta. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, watched the 28-year-old Ali in an exhibition fight and was stunned by his fitness and sharpness.
“I came here expecting nothing, instead I saw it all,” said Dundee. “For any other heavyweight it would have taken six months to return from a three-year layoff. This man is a truly remarkable athlete.”
But Ali’s preparation was not all miracles. As he was winding down his camp before his comeback he sparred fringe contender Alvin Lewis and was floored, much to everyone’s surprise, including Ali’s.
“Yes, he knocked the wind out of me. I did not have my muscles properly tensed because I am out of practice,” the 28-year-old admitted before showing signs of maturity. “I have finished predicting and fooling around. That stuff was merely to sell myself on the way up. I don’t need it now. I’m dead serious about this comeback and everyone in the world is waiting to see if I am still The Greatest. After this fight they’ll see I am still the champ.”
The world was impressed. Quarry, an accomplished contender, was outgunned from the start.
Quarry had moderate success when he targeted the former champion’s body but in round three, a long right hand ripped into his skin and blood cascaded down his face. At the close of the session Quarry’s trainer, Teddy Bentham, looked at the gruesome laceration and stopped the fight.
“No, no, no,” the blood-soaked warrior pleaded. He pushed past his cornermen and told the referee, Tony Perez, he wanted to continue. In the calm of his dressing room, the loser admitted it was the right conclusion.
“I came back and did not know I was bleeding,” he said. “All that went through my mind was to get back in there because I’m a fighter. But then I felt the blood, it felt like it was gushing.”
Despite the admission that his wound – that required 11 stitches – was bad, he held back on compliments to the fighter who opened it.
“He did just what I expected,” Quarry said of Ali. “He’s just as fast but he’s not a punishing puncher. I knew I was going to lose about four or five rounds but then I was going to make a fight of it. I just never got the chance but I know he got a couple of left hooks in the belly that he’ll remember for a while.”
No matter because Ali, although a shade slower, was back. And the boxing world was a brighter place for his return.