Last week, with the likes of South Miami and Boley well behind him, but not yet fully persuaded about Atlanta, Ali arrived at the airport in a quiet mood. Senator Johnson and Harry Pett led a delegation that met him as he stepped off the plane.
" Atlanta is too busy to hate," Pett said when asked why the city apparently had accepted the idea of a bout so calmly. "It's the finest city in the world."
Ali said he weighed 221 pounds and would need "about four weeks" to get into fighting trim. Asked his opinion of Frazier, he said, "He can't compare with Floyd Patterson in boxing ability and speed and he would not be as awkward to fight as Karl Mildenberger, who is a southpaw. Both of them are faster than Joe Frazier," he added.
Next night, in the steaming, sweltering gym where the temperature may well have hit 100� and where the last distinguished visitor had been Emperor Haile Selassie six months previously, Ali doffed a short white robe and responded almost solemnly to the cheers of a near-capacity crowd of 2,700. Among them were Martin Luther King Sr. and members of his family.
In Ali's corner were his trainer, Angelo Dundee, and his longtime friend Drew (Bundini) Brown. After his protracted layoff, no one expected much of Ali and, indeed, Dundee urged him to limit the show to six rounds instead of the scheduled eight. But Ali insisted on fulfilling his commitment. He looked a bit jowly, and when the robe came off he showed a trifle of fat about his middle, but it was nothing that could not be worked off in a couple of weeks.
His first opponent was Rufus Brassell, who wore black trunks, red headgear and a worried look. But, though Ali floated like a butterfly, he did not sting like a bee in this exhibition. He sympathizes with the hard life of sparring partners and never has been known to knock one down.
"We're going to make it a real fight," he had said the evening before, but that was just promotional pap. Instead, he drifted about the ring with hands down, flicking out an occasional jab and showing that his famous footwork still is quite possibly the best ever seen in a heavyweight. In the second round, he threw some more jabs, lightly, and then a swift one-two.
During the next two-round bout, with Johnny Hudgins, he allowed himself to take some punches, and seemed to be enjoying the exercise. He missed a few of his own, but this was clearly on purpose, just to show how close he could come to his man without actually hitting him. It disappointed the crowd that Ali was giving them so little action, and at the end of the first round of his four-rounder against George Hill there were scattered boos. In the second round he deliberately maneuvered himself into a corner, took a few blows on his arms and the top of his head, then punched his way out of the situation with a few fast stabs to the head and the body. He ended the third round with a 15-second flurry of punches, including what must have been some of the fastest combinations he ever has thrown. And finally, to the delight of the crowd, in the fourth round he demonstrated the Ali shuffle, followed by blows to the body and head.
"I'm not in condition for Frazier yet," he said in the dressing room, where he sat naked because of the heat, "but all those fellows tonight were faster than Joe Frazier." He confessed that if he had been in the ring with Frazier, in a real fight, he would have been so weary in the eighth round that he would have had to come down off his toes and box flat-footed.
Dundee was totally delighted with the performance. "It was all there," he said. "Everything. He can still fake with the hip, the hand and the shoulder. By October 26 he'll be a superheavyweight."