Ali's three and a half years of exile from boxing spanned what might have been his peak period, in his mid-20s. In 1969, Cosell asked if he would consider a return to boxing. Ali said, "Why not? If they come up with enough money." In July 1970 a Georgia state senator, Leroy Johnson, took on a bold project. Georgia had no state boxing commission, which meant that Atlanta could grant a license of its own accord. It was a fitting move: Atlanta was starting to emerge as the capital of a new, more progressive southern sensibility. But Georgia was hindered by Governor Lester Maddox, who had come to office on an anti-integrationist stance. (After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Maddox called King "an enemy of the country" and told state troopers that if any demonstrators got out of hand at King's funeral to "shoot 'em down and stack 'em up.") Atlanta gave permission for Ali to fight Jerry Quarry, on October 26, 1970. Maddox tried to stop the fight but found he had no legal grounds. He instead declared the occasion a "day of mourning" and said he hoped Clay got flattened in the first round. But the event at Atlanta's Municipal Auditorium proved a triumphant return. Ali was fleet and dominant, and in the third round he rendered Quarry – a hard-hitting fighter – too bloodied to continue. Weeks later, after a tougher but also more dazzling win over Argentine fighter Oscar Bonavena, Ali announced, "Now we have a chance to see who the real champion of the world is."
It would be a true struggle. Joe Frazier was no less formidable than Ali. Like Ali, he was an Olympic gold medal winner, in Tokyo in 1964. In 1970, when Frazier won the heavyweight title, Ali claimed he didn't begrudge him. "He wasn't given this," he said. After Ali's title had been taken, Frazier told him, "It's unfair. Whatever it takes for me to lend myself to you, I'll be there for you." In 1969, Frazier visited Washington, D.C., where he spoke to President Richard Nixon on the former champion's behalf. "I was more than decent," said Frazier. In The Greatest, Ali tells of a good-natured car ride the two men shared from Philadelphia to New York in the late 1960s. They talked about their inevitable appointment in a boxing ring. "After I whip your ass," Frazier told Ali, "I'll buy you some ice cream." Ali was dumbfounded that anybody imagined beating him. Still, Ali wrote, "of all the people in my profession I would like to have had as a friend [Joe Frazier] was the one." After that car ride, said Ali, "we never looked eye to eye."
There would be good reason for that rift. Interestingly, Ali never disparaged a white opponent in racial terms, as he often did black opponents, whom he probably saw as more serious competitors. Instead, Ali transmuted black fighters into stand-ins for white America's resistance to black enfranchisement. He worked this tactic with particular vehemence on Frazier, impugning his authenticity and purposes as a black man. "He's the wrong kind of Negro," said Ali in a TV interview. "He's not like me, 'cause he's the Uncle Tom.... He works for the enemy." Ali meant some of this talk as promotion, but Frazier took it all literally. It hurt, and it felt like a betrayal. "I just wanted to bury him," Frazier said.
The psychic war between the two men affected everything about their title match, billed as "The Fight of the Century" and set for March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. Audiences had always cared deeply if Ali won or lost, but this time he was seen to be about bigger purposes – in particular, the argument over the war in Vietnam. "I represent the truth," Ali told Rolling Stone in 1971. "The world is full of oppressed people, poverty people. They for me. They not for the system. All the black militants...all your hippies, all your draft resisters, they all want me to be the victor." By contrast, Joe Frazier took on the role of outmoded power, compliant duty. When the two men entered Madison Square Garden that night, they entered the arena of an America disunited. In the private moments before the match, Frazier sat in his dressing room and uttered a prayer: "Lord, help me kill this man because he's not righteous." Nothing, though, could discourage Ali. "If Joe Frazier whips me," he said, "I'll crawl across the ring and kiss his feet and tell him, 'You are the greatest.'"
If in some respect the fight was about America more than it was about boxing, it was nevertheless through boxing that it would be settled. Frazier was arguably in his prime – an intimidating hitter who advanced on his foes like a train and bobbed and weaved as he pressed ahead, hard to hit. Early in the fight Ali showed that he could outmaneuver Frazier and could surprise him with the strength and precision of his punches. But Frazier pushed into him inexorably, as if he savored what Ali threw at him and intended to pay it back.
The momentum edged back and forth throughout the hour, like a tightly charted suspense tale. Then, in the 15th and last round, Frazier cracked the night's mystery. With his left glove, he flicked Ali's right bicep, making him drop his arm just enough, and then lunged forward with a full-force left hook to the jaw that felled him spectacularly. Ali hit the floor on his back, his legs stretched in the air, rolled to his left knee, then rose to full height – all in less than a two-count. "That surprised me," Frazier said. Ali looked matter-of-fact, as if the instance had been a slight snag. However, the knockdown settled things for the judges: Frazier won a unanimous verdict and retained his world title, becoming the first man to beat Ali in his professional career. He also recalled Ali's earlier promise. Back in his dressing room, Mark Kram reported in Ghosts of Manila, Frazier walked restlessly, tears streaming, and said, "I want him over here! I want him to crawl to my feet! Crawl, crawl! He promised, promised me! Crawl to me, crawl! Why aren't you here?" Later, Frazier entered a hospital, where he remained for days (weeks, some said), suffering from deadly high blood pressure and extreme fatigue, among other debilities. At one point, a rumor circulated that Frazier had died. If it was true, Ali said, "I'll never fight again." Frazier didn't die, but he came close to it; doctors monitored him constantly, fearful he might enter a coma. Frazier left the hospital many days later with few people having visited him.
The legendary fight that signified the enmity caused by Vietnam had a strange afterlife. Joe Frazier never really got over the bittersweet victory that almost killed him and that failed to win him the respect he needed. It was Muhammad Ali, instead, who accomplished an unforeseen transcendence that night. He had been knocked to the ground decisively, but by rebounding in that same instant, Ali redeemed his meaning as a hero: He was the black man who would not stay down, no matter what.