The news was anticipated but saddening nonetheless. It’s always that way when an American icon passes away. This time it was Muhammad Ali, one of the most controversial figures of the 1960s. (That alone speaks volumes about his stature.)

Former Atlanta Journal sportswriter Darrell Simmons, a longtime friend and contributor to this blog, covered a pivotal moment in Ali’s career, his “comeback” fight against Jerry Quarry at City Auditorium in Atlanta in October 1970. Darrell’s got a million stories, and some of his best are about Ali, whose wit could be as quick as his punches.

Darrell: Did your father (Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr.) ever do any boxing?

Ali: I think he might have boxed some oranges down in Florida.

Darrell outworked his competitors, providing great coverage leading up to the fight, Ali’s first in three and a half years following a conviction for evading the draft. He remained free on appeal and pressed his anti-war case on college campuses and in TV interviews, notably with ABC’s Howard Cosell. No U.S. sanctioning body would grant a boxing license; his passport was taken by the feds.

(Another Darrell story: Ali once shooed Cosell so he could continue an interview with “my man from Atlanta.” Cosell was miffed and stomped away. Of course, Howard isn’t around to comment now. I expect at least an e-mail from Hell.)

The Ring, bible of boxing, describes the political climate of the times: “When public sentiment began to turn against the war, so did the invisible walls that imprisoned Ali’s boxing career. A growing segment of the population recognized Ali’s vigilance and in many quarters he was transformed from a pariah to a towering political hero. The idea of a ring return became exponentially more attractive, though several attempts to secure a license resulted in dead ends.”

Up stepped Atlanta’s black community. In August 1970, it was announced that Ali, nearing his 28th birthday, would fight Quarry, a title contender known for heavy punching.

The bout itself was an anticlimax. From the middle of the first round, it was obvious that the slower Quarry was no match for the once and future champ who could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Using his 10-inch advantage in reach, Ali landed enough left jabs to open a nasty cut above Quarry’s left eye. Three rounds in, the referee declared a TKO. Ali was humble in the post-fight interview in the ring, although he made it clear he had unfinished business with Joe Frazier.

The pay-per-view telecast of the Quarry fight is on YouTube at He never identifies himself, but the Los Angeles sportscaster calling the bout and conducting the interviews is Tom Harmon, a college football hero who married an actress. The last of their three children carried on in showbiz. His name is Mark. You’ve probably seen him on TV running an NCIS team.