Muhammad Ali
Credit: Neil Leifer / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images
Ali no doubt moved too quickly toward his appointment with Joe Frazier, but he'd had little choice: His legal appeal was headed for the Supreme Court of the United States, and if denied, he would have to enter a federal prison for up to five years. In April 1971 the court heard the arguments and decided that Ali should go to jail. But a pair of clerks prevailed on one Justice to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He came to a new view: The government's argument that Ali's religion was racist was a misrepresentation of the fighter's true beliefs. The Justices reconsidered and agreed unanimously that the draft board had erred, that Ali was sincere; they overturned his conviction. Ali had won. He was now free. In effect, Malcolm X's words had saved him.

In the years that followed, Ali still portrayed his fights as events of political and social consequence, and given his resonant symbolic power, that was true: He represented and inspired change with the spirit of his determination. In time, the Supreme Court verdict became a harbinger of how the American public and media began to see Ali: He was principled, and he had been willing to pay the cost of his defiance. In the documentary Facing Ali (2009), Canadian boxer George Chuvalo – who fought Ali both before and after his discharge from the championship – said, "I remember thinking, this must be a pretty strong guy, facing the wrath of the U.S. ­government."

But it's the trajectory of Ali's boxing that best illuminates his meaning and history. His post-exile matches form a remarkable narrative, in which we see the depths of his will and pride; his courage and genius; his resolve, vulnerability, and long collapse. Those fights also represent his evolving scruples, sometimes for the worse – as in his treatment of Frazier – but for the better as well. In the 1960s, between his Liston victory and his banishment, he had sometimes displayed a shocking vindictiveness. When former world heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson, in 1965, and contender Ernie Terrell, in 1967, refused to address him as Muhammad Ali – in effect, disparaging his faith and conviction – they had to answer to the pain and anger that had built up in him since he became champion. Ali demeaned and devastated each of these men in the ring; he even severely injured Terrell's right eye. When Howard Cosell, who was usually supportive of Ali, asked about the apparent malice against Terrell, Ali responded, "Malice? I'm out to be cruel. That's what the boxing game is about." But after his return to the ring – after giving up his title to oppose war and to advocate conscience – he was never again so physically ruthless. In 1975, in the late stages of a bout with Ron Lyle, he worried that he might destroy Lyle. "I knew I was winning," Ali told Hauser, "...so I backed off. I lost all my fighting instinct and hoped the referee would stop it." He told reporters afterward, "I'm not going to kill a man."

Nevertheless, he still fought to win. In the early 1970s, following his loss to Frazier, Ali concentrated on what he saw as his most important exoneration: regaining the championship. Almost everything was working against him. He was 31 years old at a time when a younger generation of commanding fighters, who owed much to his inspiration, was emerging. To persevere, much less to thrive again, Ali would have to develop different defensive strategies. "He was still ahead of the pack," said Ron Lyle, "but that's when they started reaching him. Before that they wasn't laying a glove on him."

Ali's goal had been to beat Joe Frazier in a dramatic rematch – "because he beat me." The fight eventually took place in January 1974, again at Madison Square Garden, but it was short of the meaning of their first bout. By this date America had begun to exit Vietnam; much of the country now shared Ali's assessment of the debacle. Also, Frazier was no longer heavyweight champion: He had lost his title to George Foreman a year earlier in Jamaica. When Ali and Frazier met for their second contest, each was battling to win a shot at Foreman, as the means to repossess the championship. Ali prevailed over Frazier after 12 rounds in a unanimous decision.

But to take on George Foreman – at 26, six years younger than Ali – seemed reckless. By his own description, Foreman had been a dropout, shoplifter, car hijacker, and purse snatcher in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, until he entered the Job Corps and realized a talent for boxing. In 1968 he won a gold medal at the Olympics in Mexico City. By 1974 he was a battleship in the ring. It might sound like an exaggeration to say that he would simply walk up to an opponent and plow him down – except that's what he did, time and again. When Foreman met Frazier in the ring, he crushed him to the ground six times in the first two rounds – twice in the last 20 seconds of the first round. After that, Foreman was seen as absolutely terrifying, the hardest-hitting heavyweight champion ever. When the Foreman-Ali fight was announced – to take place in Kinshasa, Zaire, on the west coast of Africa, on September 25, 1974 – the New York Times predicted: "Ali will be out in the first round." Foreman thought so as well. "People telling me, 'There's never been a puncher like you, George.' All those compliments, I started eating them. 'I'm gonna fight Muhammad Ali – he's the least of all these guys. I'm not nervous.'"

This was the inaugural extravaganza managed by Don King, who was intent on making himself boxing's first major black promoter. By securing a deal from the government of the Republic of Zaire (formerly the Belgian Congo and known since 1997 as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to pay the fighters $5 million apiece, King engineered a championship fight where none had ever been presented before, in Africa. Zaire was governed pitilessly by General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who decreed himself the Father of the Nation; he'd appropriated the immense funds for the match – dubbed by Ali as the "Rumble in the Jungle" – from his nation's treasury. Still, staging such a big event in an independent African state had an important benefit: It stood for the emergence of black empowerment, as the movement was gaining ground in much of the world. Ali immediately appreciated the meanings available in the location, and he laid moral claim to their provenance. "I'm not fighting for me," he said. "I'm fighting for the black people who have no future."

The much anticipated fight finally took place on October 30, 1974, in the Stade du 20 Mai outdoor coliseum before an enraptured crowd of 62,000, at 3 am. (The odd hour was necessary in order to accommodate American closed-circuit viewers.) In Ali's dressing room, Ferdie Pacheco remembered, a mood of palpable dread prevailed. "The question," he said, "was how much damage would George Foreman do?" The only one who seemed unconcerned was Ali. "I see Sonny Liston glaring at me 10 years ago at Miami Beach," he said, "a fresh, powerful, taller, stronger Liston." Meanwhile, in Foreman's dressing room, wrote Norman Mailer in The Fight, one of his cornermen, former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore, also felt dread. "I was praying," said Moore, "and in great sincerity, that George wouldn't kill Ali. I really felt that was a possibility."

Ali, it developed, proved right. As in the first Liston fight, he took command in the opening moments. He began by bouncing right and left around Foreman, throwing sharp mixes of punches that quickly stymied him. Foreman could hit incredibly hard, but that was part of his problem: Some head blows connected, but rarely with the expected effect; too often he hit air. Moreover, Ali's guard style was now impregnable: He held his forearms and gloves up before his face, forming gates that Foreman couldn't get past but that Ali could break from to land cutting blows over and under Foreman's arms.

In the second round, Ali stole into the scheme he used for much of the rest of the fight: He began leaning back into the ropes, which were stretching from the Zairian heat. It's the last place a fighter is supposed to find himself – a zone that leaves him easy to bludgeon and pick off. Ali's strategy astonished everybody. "We all yelled at him to get off the ropes," Ferdie Pacheco said. Ali later told Playboy, "I decided to go to the ropes and try to get George tired. George didn't do nothin' but attack – that's the only thing he knows." Ali later called the strategy rope-a-dope: The tactic depleted Foreman, while allowing Ali to rest.

By the end of the seventh round, Foreman had largely exhausted his own considerable bulk, until he arrived at that point where stamina and balance might collapse inward, past the recovery of will. It was almost four in the morning. "I'm getting tired," Ali said to trainer Angelo Dundee. "Maybe I'll just knock him out." Dundee replied, "Why don't you go ahead and do that? It might help the situation out." There were 30 seconds left to the eighth round when Foreman hurled a looping swing against Ali on the ropes. Ali sidestepped it, and Foreman blundered, swapping positions with his challenger, as Ali clubbed him with a head-dazing right blow. Foreman tried to steady himself and go after Ali but stumbled into rapid-fire combinations that spun him around like a drunken ballet dancer – punches with enough impact to throw a spray of his sweat across the ring. The force and dexterity of Ali's blows held Foreman upright but, at the same time, tumbled him downward in a dizzy, slow-motion-like crash, full-weight, a helpless giant, insensible. It was the most splendid finish in Ali's career and one of the most magnificent recorded motions of the 20th century. The fight ended in exactly the last second of the eighth round. Years later, in Facing Ali, Foreman said, "Probably the best punch of the night was never landed. Muhammad Ali, as I was going down, stumbling, trying to hold myself, he saw me stumbling.... Ordinarily you finish a fighter off; I would have. He got ready to throw the right hand, and he didn't do it. That's what made him, in my mind, the greatest fighter I ever fought."