Muhammad Ali had a special relationship with Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

For nearly five decades, Muhammad Ali has had a special relationship with Atlanta.

With the passing of “the Greatest” on Friday at the age of 74, it is an appropriate time to reflect on Ali’s relationships with Atlanta – two that are well-known events and two relationships that are less known.

The two historic events that happened in in Atlanta during his life took place nearly 26 years apart.

On Oct. 26, 1970, Ali returned to the boxing ring after a hiatus of more than three years for evading the draft as a protest to the Vietnam War. He won the fight against Jerry Quarry, a heavy weight, in the Municipal Auditorium – now the Dahlberg Hall and a parking lot for Georgia State University.

And then at the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games in July, 1996, Ali carried the torch that lit the Olympic Cauldron – a heart-warming surprise for everyone watching in person and on TV.

But Ali had two other special relationships with Atlanta – both of them related to his health.

Muhammad Ali ad

Muhammad Ali in the WebMD commercial that aired during the 2000 Super Bowl (Screen Shot)

During the 2000 Super Bowl in the Georgia Dome, Ali was a guest of honor. He had been invited to the game by Jeff Arnold, founder of WebMD. Arnold saw the 2000 Super Bowl as a great opportunity build the visibility of his online healthcare website.

WebMD used the occasion to announce a partnership with Muhammad Ali and Lance Armstrong – two the most famous athletes in the world who were battling illnesses. Ali had Parkinson’s, and Armstrong had cancer. Both agreed to be faces for WebMD – to show how people could get greater control over their own health.

Before the game, Arnold told me to come visit his three suites at the Georgia Dome. Ali would be in one, and Armstrong would be in another. But he told me to come by the WebMD Ali suite in the first quarter because that would be when Ali’s WebMD commercial would be making its debut – and that way I would be able to see his reaction.

Arnold said the commercial was unique because it would be the first time in nearly 20 years that Ali would be filmed boxing for exercise. For him, he wanted Ali to be seen as an athlete rather than as a victim of Parkinson’s.

When the Ali commercial  aired, the athlete known as “the Greatest”  was transfixed on the television screen

I approached him – asking what he thought of the Super Bowl ad featuring him. Ali, a man of few words, shared only one word: “Beautiful.”

Arnold beamed with pride.

The other important relationship Ali had with Atlanta is not well known.

The doctor who treated Ali for Parkinson’s was Atlanta’s own – Dr. Mahlon DeLong, the William Timmie Professor of Neurology at Emory University – one of the national leaders in the treatment of Parkinson’s.

Dr. Delong had been treating Ali since 1994 – three years after he had come to Emory from John Hopkins University.

Dr. DeLong Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali with his doctor, Emory’s Dr. Mahlon DeLong (Special: The Dana Foundation)

On April 8, 2010, at the Foundation of Wesley Woods’ Heroes, Saints & Legends dinner at the St. Regis Hotel, Dr. DeLong was one of the honorees.

His award, however was overshadowed by two guests who had come to honor him – Yolanda “Lonnie” Ali and Muhammad Ali, who came in a wheelchair.

It was Lonnie Ali who spoke on their behalf.

“I remember walking in his office,” Lonnie Ali said of her first time meeting DeLong. “[Muhammad Ali] was doing really well then. [DeLong] was going through the different assessments. I told him, ‘He will be your most difficult patient.’ I think Muhammad has lived up to that.”

Then Lonnie Ali ended her comments saying: “I’m so proud to be part of the Emory family.”

That relationship was reinforced on March 15, 2014 at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, the Foundation of Wesley Woods honored Lonnie Ali in her right. She had been managing her husband’s business affairs and was serving as his main personal caregiver.

“I don’t usually accept awards on my behalf,” she said when thanking Wesley Woods for the award. “Usually I do it on my husband’s behalf.”

In aa 1998 interview with the Atlanta Business Chronicle, Dr. DeLong made a point of publicly stating that Ali had Parkinson’s – a fact some had questioned.

“He is very independent and he has his own ideas,” DeLong said of Ali. “He sees it as something to overcome and not something to overcome him.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

5 replies
  1. Stell Huie says:

    Maria,

    I remember another Ali/Atlanta connection. Before his first official fight at the old auditorium, there was an exhibition in Atlanta that I believe the late Senator Leroy Johnson arranged. I remember going to Pascal’s for diner beforehand, but I do not remember who Ali’s opponent was.       Stell HuieReport

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  2. Pat Burson George says:

    I knew about the Olympic torch lighting but not about the other Ali/Atlanta connections. Thanks for the history lesson, Maria.Report

    Reply
  3. stacyh01953 says:

    When the “Greatest” would come to Emory, we, as hospital employees, did not disclose his visits, his studies or procedures. Every patient deserves their privacy whether they are the “Greatest” or “Nobody Knows me from Adam”; however,I can guarantee that we all felt the electricity of his presence in our workplace! Sometimes the Champ had his own ideas!  I remember on one occasion when rather than entering  through a side or rear entrance to avoid publicity, he walked through the main hall on the tunnel level of Emory Hospital main campus. He was so tall, I hadn’t expected that, and really was beautiful. His face glowed with an inner light and it was hard to look away. He walked with a slight shuffle and spoke with a little difficulty, it was still as if a king was walking. His bearing was regal and his genuine affection for the people reaching out or speaking to him was apparent. He was only there for a few moments, but I will never forget those moments as long as I live. Gentle, kind, loving. Extraordinary does not even begin to describe him.Report

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