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.

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

Buy it: Amazon

2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

Buy it: Amazon

3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

Buy it: Amazon

4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

Buy it: Cratejoy

7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

LookHUMAN/Amazon

This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

Buy it: Amazon

2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

Buy it: Amazon

3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

Buy it: Amazon

4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

Buy it: Cratejoy

7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

LookHUMAN/Amazon

This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!