'The Fight of the Century': A divided US nation 50 years on

Updated 3:17 AM ET, Tue March 9, 2021

(CNN)By the time the first bell rang and Joe Frazier came bobbing towards him, Muhammad Ali was already four years into a fight that helped define him as one of the 20th century's most influential figures.

Under the lights at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, Ali was once again fighting for the world title and, for many fans, boxing's true heavyweight champion had finally returned from exile.
Banished as one of the most electrifying and polarizing figures of the late 1960s, Ali had become the face of protest, and the man to unite the anti-war movement with the ongoing struggle for civil rights and racial equality.

Seconds out, round one

For the "Fight of the Century," everyone who was anyone sat ringside.
There was Frank Sinatra, hanging on the ring apron as a photographer for Life magazine; and writer Norman Mailer putting words to the action. Singers and actors -- Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman and Sammy Davis Jr -- sprinkled stardust over the proceedings.
"I remember the announcer saying, 'I'm not going to make any introductions,' everybody's here!" recalls Mike Silver, boxing historian and author of "The Arc of Boxing" and "The Night the Referee Hit Back," who was in attendance at the fight 50 years ago.
"This huge 20,000 plus fraternity of people were just generating this electricity and anticipation," Silver tells CNN Sport.
"Three hundred million people throughout the world saw this fight on television, in Africa and Asia, Europe, Japan, China ... When that first bell rang, a roar went up, a roar!"