'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!"
"This wasn't just a prize fight," says boxing author Mike Silver. "This had other dimensions to it: the dimensions of race, politics, the Vietnam War."
Cassius Clay -- the young man from Kentucky who would become Ali -- won gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, before climbing to the top of the professional game with footwork and wit that dazzled, infuriated and ultimately changed heavyweight boxing.
Frazier -- an Olympic gold medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics -- had grown up on a sharecropper's farm in South Carolina.
"Smokin" Joe moved to Philadelphia, where he worked in a meat locker beating sides of beef with his fists -- the inspiration for a storyline in the film Rocky.
After Clay beat champion Sonny Liston, he changed his name and spent three years ruling the heavyweight division. But, after refusing induction into the military, Ali was stripped of the title in 1967.
In Ali's absence, Frazier won the world heavyweight crown, defeating Jimmy Ellis in 1970. Frazier also lent Ali money while he was excluded from the sport and campaigned both publicly and privately for the former champion to be cleared to box.