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'Chicken Man' and the cop 

Two men, one crime and the heavyweight championship of the world

J.D. Hudson knew they were a bunch of no-good punks as soon as they strutted into the drugstore.

He was gobbling down lunch at the old Yates & Milton pharmacy on the west side when the door chime rang and a neighborhood numbers boss named Robert "Short Papa" Vambrose strolled in with his entourage.

"Young hustlers in training," Hudson thought to himself.

He was in a rush to make an afternoon class at Clark College, which is what they used to Clark Atlanta University in those days. But Hudson wasn't just a student. He was a pretty tough guy in his own right, bristling with the muscles of an amateur welterweight champ and, at 22, one of the first black men on the freshly integrated Atlanta police force.

"Short Papa" and the gang didn't know that. All they noticed was that Hudson was sitting in the wrong seat at the wrong table, the one right next to the door. One of the young hustlers -- a short, stocky kid -- swaggered behind him.

"You're in my seat," the punk said, "and you better get up if you know what's good for you."

Hudson didn't turn to face him. "Go straight to hell," he muttered, and went back to work on his tuna fish sandwich.

Someone seated near Hudson gave him a warning: "He's got a gun." Hudson turned his head and felt the blunt end of a pistol, pressed cold against his cheek.

The way he remembers it, he put the remnants of his sandwich on his plate, then calmly got up to leave, staring the little punk down as he went through the door. At the last moment, he cast an eye toward another young hustler, a slender sidekick who was just standing there grinning. It was the first time J.D. Hudson noticed Gordon "Chicken Man" Williams.

Short Papa and his gang laughed as Hudson walked out. Hudson was seething.

Late that afternoon, he reported for duty at the black officer's precinct, which was stashed at the Butler Street YMCA, a couple of blocks from police headquarters. He told his sergeant about the incident, and his sergeant seethed, too.

"Let's go get him," he told Hudson.

They jumped into a squad car -- the white sergeant had to drive because black recruits still weren't allowed to -- and headed across the tracks to the west side. It didn't take them long to spot the young hoodlum with the gun and his grinning sidekick. They were standing on a corner on Hunter Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive).

"That's the guy," Hudson told his sergeant. The sergeant pulled the car up to the curb, and Hudson jumped out.

"Shit, man, that guy's a cop!" one of the punks said. Hudson grabbed the little punk and tossed him into the back of the squad car, leaving Williams to wonder what would happen to his friend.

"We had a problem arresting him -- that's the lie I must tell you," Hudson recalled. "So we had a big fight and I whooped that young hustler's butt. They had his picture in the paper the next day, face all swollen up, headline saying it was brutality -- and I was the brute."

It became a mini-scandal. The little guy got out of jail and lodged a complaint against Hudson. There was an internal probe. Williams testified. He told about the incident in the drugstore, and about his friend being snatched off the street.

"I was investigated, vilified, tried, fined and suspended," Hudson recalled. He had to pay $50 and was off the force for 60 days.

On the street, Williams feared retribution for his testimony against the tough young cop. "I stayed out of J.D.'s way after that," he later said. "Whenever I would see him coming one way, I would turn and walk the other."

This was a dream assignment. Police Lt. J.D. Hudson was standing ringside, displaying a level of decorum appropriate to the task. But inside he was as giddy as a child who'd inherited a candy store.

Here he was after 21 years as an officer -- a long way from a rookie cop in trouble in the tenuously integrated Atlanta Police Department. He was in his prime -- the first black detective lieutenant on Atlanta's vice squad, the envy of white colleagues who had a harder time cracking cases on the black side of town. But this fine night had to take the cake: He was guarding "the Greatest."

Muhammad Ali was the most popular athlete -- quite possibly, the most popular person -- in the world at the time. But at home, the boxing establishment and American politicians vilified him. Shortly after winning the heavyweight title in 1964, he announced he was Muslim and, when he was drafted in 1967, he declared himself a conscientious objector. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he told the world.

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