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It's been 25 years since Atlanta's unforgettable Olympics opening ceremony with Muhammad Ali

Ambassador Andrew Young had a Herculean task -- keeping Muhammad Ali a secret from the world.

ATLANTA — It was 25 years ago amid preparation for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta when Ambassador Andrew Young had to keep the biggest secret in the world -- Muhammad Ali was lighting the Olympic torch.

Ali's lighting of the Olympic Caldron engraved itself in the memories of many as an unforgettable, unexpected and gasp-drawing moment. It happened on July 19, 1996.

Young said Ali had flown into Atlanta the day of the opening ceremony and sequestered inside a downtown hotel by the Atlanta Organizing Committee. For Young, attempting to disguise and hide the most famous man in the world was a Herculean task. 

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Friday, July 19, 1996 file photo, Muhammad Ali holds a torch as he watches as the flame climb up to the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. As Cassius Clay, he won the gold medal as a light heavyweight at the 1960 Rome Olympics. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Ali was restless as he sat in his hotel room. He wanted out for a haircut and food in west Atlanta -- but not before disguising his identity from the public with sunglasses and a big hat.

Young told Ali he couldn't leave. Ali would hear none of it. He wanted to float like a butterfly toward lunch and a fresh trim. Hat on, sunglasses in place, the vehicle was at the valet stand of the hotel. 

The famous men piled in to the SUV with a simple goal— avoid public detection. 

It didn’t work. 

“The Greatest” jumped out of the vehicle when he saw a barber shop near Atlanta University off MLK Drive. 

WATCH: 25 years since Atlanta was the host city for Olympics

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The customers and hair cutters were stunned to see Ali, the crowds swelled fueled by word of mouth.  Ambassador Young was worried that the idea of Ali lighting the cauldron was in peril of collapsing.

The former Congressman and American Civil Rights icon was convinced the press would figure out Ali was in Atlanta and the surprise would be ruined hours before the ceremony. 

Ali was shaking hands, posing for pictures -- being Ali, as crowds grew. A worried Young battled Ali physically, wrestling and attempting to get the former heavyweight champion of the world back in the SUV. 

Eventually, Ali slumbered in the vehicle and Young convinced him to stay under cover until the historic moment of the Olympic ceremony.

Credit: AP
Boxing legend Muhammed Ali lights the Olympic flame, as American swimmer Janet Evans looks on during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony in Atlanta, July 19, 1996. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Young has described it in the past as a very difficult, but remarkable night.

A disguise, haircut, take out food and wrestling the great Ali into an SUV -- all in a days work for the 55h Mayor of Atlanta. 

Twenty five years ago, the opening ceremony of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games held in Atlanta. The unforgettable,...

Posted by Jeff Hullinger 11Alive on Friday, July 16, 2021