Criminal Ring: How Muhammad Ali's 1970 Comeback Led to a Big-Money Heist

Muhammad Ali makes a prediction of how many rounds it will take for him to win an upcoming fight scheduled for June 1963. He was right.
Muhammad Ali makes a prediction of how many rounds it will take for him to win an upcoming fight scheduled for June 1963. He was right.
Kent Gavin, Keystone/Getty Images

For weeks, the engraved invitations had been circulating in New York and Atlanta. In gold lettering, the cards said that a man named “Fireball” was throwing a birthday party for “Tobe” at 2819 Handy Drive in the Collier Heights section of Atlanta’s West End. The festivities were to begin in the early morning hours of October 27, 1970, immediately following the historic comeback of boxer Muhammad Ali, who was in Atlanta to face off against Jerry Quarry after three years away from the ring.

The invitations blanketed both cities because organizers knew Ali’s return would attract fans from New York and elsewhere. It would also attract hustlers, pimps, drug dealers, and various other men and women with alternative means of earning a living. They would all be carrying cash and flashing expensive jewelry.

Even though boxing fans were used to witnessing robberies in the ring and on judges’ scorecards, this time would be different. As they celebrated Ali’s victory, they’d be victimized by one of the most brazen armed robberies the city of Atlanta had ever seen.


Atlanta was not a conventional choice to act as the site of Ali’s comeback. From 1967 through 1970, the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay had been fighting the federal government after declaring himself a conscientious objector and refusing to enlist for military service in the Vietnam War. He was sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion.

After being freed on bail, Ali appealed his sentence—but the stigma endured. The boxer was stripped of his heavyweight championship and effectively blacklisted from the sport, with states refusing to grant the then-28-year-old a license to compete. In the South, where racial tensions remained high, it seemed unthinkable that any official would endorse Ali's return to the ring.

Muhammad Ali at a press conference before his bout with Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, Georgia on October 26, 1970.AFP/Getty Images

Robert Kassel thought differently. The New York-based attorney had helped promote a Joe Frazier bout and knew Ali’s comeback would be a lucrative event. So he asked his father-in-law, Atlanta businessman Harry Pett, to phone Georgia state senator Leroy Johnson. Pett and Johnson were friends; Johnson, one of the state’s few Black elected officials, considered the treatment of Ali unfair and agreed to see what he could do.

Johnson discovered Georgia had no laws governing the sport of boxing, which left permission to hold events up to local municipalities. Johnson reached out to Atlanta mayor Sam Massell, who allowed the fight to proceed—provided Kassel donate $50,000 of the revenue to an area drug rehabilitation program.

Ali’s comeback was set for October 26, 1970 against Jerry Quarry, who had recently upset top heavyweight contender Mac Foster. That weekend, locals and tourists alike descended upon Atlanta's Hyatt Regency hotel, as well as the 5000-seat Civic Auditorium, and paid up to $100 for a ringside seat. (Fans in other cities could watch the bout on closed-circuit television.) Celebrities like Diana Ross were spotted at the Hyatt. So were guests who wore elaborate outfits and extravagant jewelry. More of the engraved invitations for Fireball’s party, which was scheduled to start immediately following the fight, were handed out.


Shaking off years of ring rust, Ali was declared the victor by technical knockout in the third round, when a cut forced Quarry’s trainer Teddy Bentham to call off the fight.

While Ali celebrated his victory at the Hyatt, surrounded by friends and celebrities, carloads of the event's not-quite-so-famous attendees were beginning to gather at 2819 Handy Drive. Upon entering the front door, they had expected to find a raging party. Instead, they were met by men in ski masks wielding sawed-off shotguns.

Muhammad Ali and Jerry Quarry exchange punches. Elsewhere in Atlanta, armed gunmen were getting ready for a surprise party.Keystone/Getty Images

One by one, the partygoers were maneuvered into the basement and ordered to throw their cash and jewelry in a pile. Then they were told to strip down to their underwear and lay flat on the floor. As more people showed up—by some estimates, up to 200 guests arrived—the pile of valuables grew. Victims were forced to stack themselves on top of one another. The heist, which was slow and deliberate, took hours; the robbers stuffed the goods into yellow-and-white pillowcases.

Finally, around 3 a.m., the gunmen departed, dragging two hostages with them. They were dropped off on the other side of town three hours later and given $10 for cab fare. Police were called and an investigation was soon underway. But solving a robbery where most of the victims were criminals themselves wouldn’t be easy.


Authorities looked closely at the homeowner, a small-time criminal named Gordon “Chicken Man” Williams. (He earned the nickname by purchasing chicken sandwiches, which he then handed out to attractive women in the hopes of charming them.) But one of the leading investigators on the case, a detective lieutenant named J.D. Hudson, knew Williams was relatively clean. Hudson had been tasked with serving as Ali's bodyguard at the fight and had spotted Williams, whom he had known for decades, in attendance at the same time Williams’s girlfriend, Barbara Smith, said she was helping to prepare for the party when the gunmen had burst in. Williams had only given permission for a criminal associate known as Fireball to use the house for a party.

Clues were scarce, and eyewitness testimony was difficult to secure. Most of the victims of the robbery were wary of talking to police and were from out of town. Only five filed official complaints. Most left Atlanta without even giving authorities their contact information. The only real tip came from an anonymous phone call from someone who said that the robbery had been set up to pay off a drug deal gone bad back in New York City earlier that year.

Muhammad Ali in a public training session in New York City in December 1970.Anwar Hussein, Getty Images

The first real break came two days later, when a shotgun and yellow-and-white pillowcase were found near the house in a leather satchel. The gun was traced to a man named Jimmy “Houston” Hammonds, who said he had bought the gun for two friends: James Jackson and James Ebo. Both men had multiple aliases and both were known to be involved in criminal activities. Hudson went to Jackson’s apartment, but no one was home. Still, he lucked out: Jackson’s bed had yellow-and-white bedsheets.

A month later, a Fulton County grand jury indicted Hammonds, Jackson, and Ebo, who was named under his alias of James Henry Hall, on six counts of armed robbery each. Hammonds was already in custody but there was no sign of the other two men. Hudson figured one of two things would happen: Either police would find them, or their victims would—especially now that they had been named in the papers. If the victims found them, there wouldn’t be any kind of trial.

Hudson was right. On May 8, 1971, Jackson and Ebo were found shot to death inside a parked Cadillac in the Bronx. A third man, Donald Phillips, was also killed. Robbery didn’t seem likely, as both guns and $700 in cash had been left in the car, and 11 shots had been fired. New York City detectives couldn’t figure out the motive until Jackson and Ebo were identified as suspects in the Atlanta robbery by Hudson, who flew out to New York to consult with authorities. "We said last fall it was just a question of who caught up with them first—the police or the victims,” Hudson told The New York Times. "It appears the victims got there first."

Though a total of five to eight gunmen were reported by the victims, no one else was ever arrested. A third individual connected to the crime, “Bookie” Brown, had also been found dead. Hudson assumed street justice had come for the rest of them, too.

Erroneously, Gordon “Chicken Man” Williams was thought to have been killed for his assumed role in the robbery. Local newspapers even reported that Williams had been murdered just two days after the party when, in fact, he was alive and well. Williams had cooperated with police and then sent word to some associates in New York City that he had not been involved at all. His girlfriend had even been one of the hostages taken when the robbers made their getaway. Williams eventually got out of the drug trade and became a minister.

Ali would go on to have his draft evasion conviction overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971 and reclaim his heavyweight title in a fight against George Foreman in 1974. For the Quarry bout, he was paid $250,000 against 42.5 percent of the revenue. The robbers made off with an estimated $1 million.

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Take Two: When Kim Jong-il Raised North Korea's World Cinema Profile By Kidnapping Two South Korean Stars

Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Choi Eun-hee knew there was trouble even before the needle sent her into unconsciousness.

It was 1978, and Choi, one of South Korea’s most prominent actresses, was struggling to regain the success she had achieved earlier in her career. A promise of a possible film partnership by a man claiming to be from Hong Kong had lured her to Repulse Bay, a waterfront locale in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, where she exited a vehicle and noticed a group of men standing near a boat. Choi sensed something wasn't quite right, but before she could consider it any further, she was grabbed, sedated, and thrown onboard.

When she awoke, Choi found herself in the captain’s quarters. Above her was a portrait of Kim Jong-il, then the chief of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, was the leader of the country, a communist regime that had now seemingly absconded with Choi—for reasons the actress couldn't imagine.

Roughly eight days after being kidnapped, Choi found herself in Pyongyang, where Kim greeted her not as someone who had been forcibly subdued and delivered to him, but as an honored guest. In a way, she was. In Kim’s mind, Choi and her ex-husband, award-winning film director Shin Sang-ok (who would soon join them, also involuntarily) were the very people the country needed to spearhead a new era in North Korean filmmaking, one that would make the entire world sit up and take notice.

That both Choi and Shin would be captives of the state was of little concern to those in charge. Regardless of how their guests got there, they were there. And Kim had no intention of letting them leave.


Kim, who eventually succeeded his father as leader of North Korea and ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, was a movie buff. He reportedly owned more than 30,000 films—including a great deal of pornography—and ordered traveling diplomats to bring back copies of international films for his enjoyment. Kim even authored a book, 1973’s On the Art of Cinema, that was intended as an instructional guide for filmmakers in the country. He preached a devotion to a singular, unified vision and bemoaned that North Korean films had too much ideology and crying in them. All but ignored by the rest of the film world, Kim wanted the North producing features that would be embraced by film festivals.

Kim Jong-il loved movies so much he decided to abduct some talent.Getty Images (Kim Jong-il) // JurgaR/iStock via Getty Images (Movie Theater). Photo composite by Mental Floss.

At the time, it was not uncommon for North Korea to fill a need for trained workers simply by kidnapping them. It had worked for the country when they wanted to learn more about South Korea; between 1977 and 1978, they abducted five South Korean high school students who became instructors for future undercover Northern operatives. They also once attempted to kidnap a concert pianist, who grew wise to the situation when he arrived for his private appointment and heard several people speaking with North Korean accents. (He fled.) Even so, Kim used a similar strategy when he decided that kidnapping an actor and director would be the most effective way to achieve his movie aspirations.

Choi was only one part of the plan. Once she was grabbed, Shin began a desperate search for her. The two, who had once been considered a “golden couple” in South Korea, had divorced in 1976 following Shin's affair with a younger actress, but they remained close.

Of course, Shin was a cinematic superstar in his own right. Though his career had also recently cooled off, he was a celebrated director who had once been referred to as "the Orson Welles of South Korea." Though there are different stories as to how Shin ended up in North Korea, the official version is that he wanted to help locate his missing ex. And when that trail eventually led him to Hong Kong, Shin, too, soon found himself with a bag over his head, being hustled to Pyongyang. While Choi had resigned herself to some acceptance of her fate—she was living in a luxurious villa surrounded by guards—Shin was more combative. After numerous escape attempts, he was sent to prison.

For four years, Shin subsisted on a diet of grass, salt, and rice, never once seeing Choi or getting any update about her safety. As far as Shin knew, she was dead. Finally, in 1983, Shin was released and “invited” to a reception. To their mutual shock, the former couple was reunited, neither one knowing the other had been there the entire time.

Kim apologized for the delayed meeting, saying he had been busy. On the subject of Shin being imprisoned for four years, he dismissed it as a misunderstanding. It was only then that Kim explained why the two were there: North Korean filmmakers had no new ideas, he explained, so he wanted Shin and Choi to make films that would establish North Korea in the movie business.

None of it was presented as a choice. That same year, the couple remarried—also reportedly at Kim's suggestion.

The filmmakers spent years trapped in North Korea.NatanaelGinting/iStock via Getty Images

There was discussion of escape, particularly when the couple was allowed to travel to Berlin to scout locations for productions, but Shin dismissed it.

"What's the matter with you?" Shin recalled telling Choi in his 1988 memoir, Kingdom of Kim. "I will not make an attempt unless it's 100 percent certain. If they caught us, we'd be dead."

Instead, Shin pondered the opportunity. Kim gave him the equivalent of $3 million as an annual salary, for both personal and professional use. His production offices grew to more than 700 employees. Aside from some firm edicts—Kim wanted to project an image of North Korea as a political titan, while somehow softening its image as a totalitarian terror—Shin had a large degree of creative freedom. He filmed North Korea’s first onscreen kiss. He made Runaway, a 1984 film about a wandering Korean family in 1920s Manchuria, that Shin believed was the best film of his career.

Most famously, he directed Pulgasari, a monster movie clearly inspired by Godzilla that featured an oversized monster aiding an army of farmers looking to overthrow a cruel king. Kim even convinced several filmmakers who worked on the Godzilla films to come to North Korea to assist with the production by guaranteeing their safety. Kenpachiro Satsuma, who was the second person to wear the Godzilla suit, performed as Pulgasari. Thousands of North Korean soldiers were used as extras.


Kim was very happy with the work Shin and Choi were producing, which grew to seven films. Some had even made it to festivals in the Eastern Bloc. Gradually, he gave them more and more freedom to travel, eventually allowing them to take an escorted trip to Vienna in 1986 to help stir up a possible European distributor that would make a North Korean film easier to circulate. As they were preparing to leave for Austria, the two decided to act.

"To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony," Shin wrote.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in The Lovers & the Despot (2016).Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The two got in touch with a Japanese film critic they knew and met him for lunch. With North Korean guards in pursuit, Shin and Choi took a taxi to the American embassy and explained their eight-year ordeal as creative captives of Kim. Within a week, they were telling their story to reporters in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the CIA.

North Korea denied that the two had been there against their will, arguing that they simply wanted to escape the restrictive nature of South Korean filmmaking. But Choi had seen to it that they came back with evidence. She had snuck an audio cassette recorder into her handbag during one meeting with Kim, who advised that if they were ever asked what they were doing in North Korea, to say that they were there voluntarily. She had even managed to have the tape smuggled out of the country before escaping, a stunt that could have resulted in her death if the betrayal had been discovered. For those in the U.S. government gathering intelligence on North Korea, it was the first time Kim’s voice had ever been heard.

Shin and Choi remained in the United States, where they had been granted political asylum. Shin even directed the 1995 film Three Ninjas Knuckle Up and produced several more movies under the pseudonym Simon Sheen. They eventually returned to South Korea in 1999, though some South Koreans believed Shin had gone to the North and pledged allegiance to communism voluntarily and treated him with suspicion.

"I could not dare return [to South Korea] without evidence that I had been kidnapped to the North," Shin said in an interview. "If [the Seoul government] charged me with entering the North on my own and cooperating with the North Koreans, I would have had no evidence to deny it."

Shin and Choi's story was explored in depth in Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's documentary The Lovers & the Despot, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Shin died in 2006, Choi in 2018. In a 2015 interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, Choi said that she still had nightmares about being pursued by North Korean agents. "Even though [Kim Jong-il] did not use the right means to get what he wanted, I understood his desire to develop the North Korean movie industry," she said. "He mentioned that he wanted to bring about change to North Korean movies, all of which were similar in terms of directing and acting. But please don't misunderstand that my forgiveness of him means that I agree with the North Korean system, because I don't."

Though North Korea never did admit to abducting the pair, in 2002 Kim Jong-il did come clean about snatching several Japanese tourists in the late 1970s and 1980s, and issued a formal apology.

When it finally received a wider release, Pulgasari was dismissed as silly. Now under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea has yet to make any impact on the international film scene.