50 Years Ago: When Ali Returned As A Hero To Face “The Great White Hope”

If you want to talk about a comeback, a great, against all odds boxing comeback, then the return to the ring Muhammad Ali made exactly 50 years ago today is one that stands out. Heavyweight champion Ali, at his blinding peak (or approaching it) was, as we all know, stripped of the title, and denied to right to box, this due to his refusal to serve in the Vietnam war.

This was in 1967 – at least Ali’s final fight was in March of ’67, when the champ easily despatched Zora Folley – and the remainder of the decade saw Ali the “conscientious objector” having to earn money by giving lectures on college campuses. As the war began to turn more and more violently unpopular, Ali – a “traitor” and a “coward” in 1967 – became a hero to all those who were appalled at the struggle in Vietnam. It was, these people said, a “civil war between North and South Vietnam” and America had no need to be there.

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Things had changed big time, and now many millions of people agreed with Ali’s brave, controversial stance. The war sadly raged on, right up until 1975, yet Ali had won his battle with the government. His license to box returned to him in late 1970, a 28-year-old Ali was allowed to come back.

Ali was given no easy opponent, nor was he granted much time to get ready. Ali had around six weeks to get into fighting shape, and his opponent was the No.1 rated Jerry Quarry (this ranking per Ring Magazine, Quarry the WBA No.3 ranked contender). This, make no mistake, was no “soft return,” this was a very real and genuine fight for Ali. What had the layoff – of 3 years and seven months – taken away from him? How much magic had Ali lost? Quarry was 25 years old and he had been in with the likes of Joe Frazier, Jimmy Ellis, Floyd Patterson, Eddie Machen, Buster Mathis and George Chuvalo.

The fight, scheduled for 15 rounds, took place in Atlanta, Georgia. Ali weighed 213, Quarry 197.

As it turned out, Ali’s legs would never again be the super-fast defensive tools they had been prior to his enforced exile. Ali’s hands were still a blur, yet he was a little more hittable now than he had been. The fight with Quarry was just getting going when “The Great White Hope,” as Quarry had been referred to (not everyone was on Ali’s side, even if his popularity was now higher than it had been three years earlier), began to bleed. An Ali right hand opened a cut above Quarry’s left eye and the fight was stopped at the end of the third.

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The classy Quarry, when offered the alibi of the cut being caused by a butt, shot back how the injury had in fact been caused by a punch. Ali was back. The ending of his return fight might have been somewhat unsatisfactory, but the champ was back in business. Amazingly, after just one more fight (this a rough, tough affair with the rough and tough Oscar Bonavena), Ali was facing Joe Frazier for the crown; this just over four months after coming back.

You want to talk about a comeback? Ali’s epic return of half a century ago today has to be looked at as one of the most amazing. Ali lost to Frazier, yet his return to glory was complete in October of 1974, when “The Greatest” stopped George Foreman to regain his crown. Ali had done it and he had done it the hard way.

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