Ken Norton’s camp chose a good consigliere to sit with the boxer before he took to the ring to defeat Muhammad Ali 50 years ago tonight.
The Illinois heavyweight had sometimes played the role of sparring partner for Joe Frazier and now it was Frazier’s turn to help Norton who was a relatively heavy underdog that day in San Diego.
Frazier, famously the first to stop Ali as a pro in an all-time classic billed as the “Fight of the Century” at the Garden just over two years prior, was at pains to urge Norton to ignore the barbs and boasts; “Don’t listen to him. He’ll play games with you, but you just take care of business. OK?”
The advice helped because Norton joined Frazier as the only two boxers to beat Ali in his prime, two of five in total. It was a peak career moment for the former and the almost 12,000 lucky enough to crowd into the Southern California arena ended up witnessing one of the great sports shocks of that era.
Ali was approaching 31 and Norton was three years his junior but ultimately it was their contrasting preparations which would lead to a split decision, helped in no small part by the fact that the winner broke Ali’s jaw early in the bout.
Frazier hated sparring with Norton. Their sessions would draw in a sizable gathering of knowledgeable boxing folk who thrilled in watching their intense two- and three-round practice battles, more than enough punishment for Frazier to take and always enough for him to contemplate calling out sick to avoid the hassle.
I watched back the entire fight this week, a rickety ABC broadcast with all the sounds and chaos you love to see from those days when it was standard for the largest networks to broadcast every other major duel to millions across the US.
It was box office and it was free to air. Norton was a lamb to slaughter, another notch for the almost completely unblemished tale of Ali’s tape.
Norton experimented with hypnotism and planned to a tee where his eyes would be both before and during the fight. His gaze would fix on the canvas during the ring walk and on his opponents’ pectoral muscles while they fought, all the better to see the flinch before the wind-up, a split second warning to help him glean every edge possible.
He tried not to marvel at the sight of the much larger entourage surrounding his opponent and the bejewelled white robe worn by Ali for his ring entrance, a glaring garb gifted to him by Elvis Presley and emblazoned with the words “People’s Choice” on the back. He had worn it for the first time for his win over Brit Joe Bugner six weeks earlier on Valentine’s Day.
Frazier’s advice clicked as their gloves touched. Norton was ready for All’s stare and the way he bit his bottom lip with his upper teeth. He kept his head down, for the most part, and ignored the ritual.
Frazier famously let Ali get to him and who better to program a fighter into how he could dig himself out of that psychological hole.
“I never let any of that stuff bother me because it was all mental,” Norton wrote in his autobiography, Going the Distance. “I admired him tremendously growing up, so it was hard for me to hate him. Later, when I got to know Ali on a personal level, I admired him even more.” Norton was a former Marine and he was a little deeper down in the contender rankings, in spite of a good record and his prime age. “You’re gonna get a lesson in boxing today, Mr. Norton,” the greatest warned as they touched gloves. Ali’s left glove had “KO in three” scribbled in it.
Norton’s military service meant San Diego was his adopted hometown and you can hear the partisan crowd greeting Norton’s strong opening round and a second-round left hook with joy and building belief.
As early as that second round, ABC’s Howard Cosell wondered for the first time if Ali was taking Norton lightly because the legendary commentator had seen him at a party the night before. “He wasn’t doing anything,” Cosell clarified, “he was just sitting there.” But that was enough for the snipe to gather steam as the rounds wore on.
The combination of punches Norton had dreamed about when preparing probably resulted in the broken jaw which ultimately undid Ali. It was the end of that second round and Norton was cutting the ring in half for his opponent, as he had pledged. A left connected with Ali’s body leaving him open to a punishing overhand right to his jaw.
By the fourth round, Cosell gets even more alarmed by the “startlingly dull Ali” and he invites Angelo Dundee to comment live during the broadcast, his on-message response of ”don’t worry, he’s wearing him down” was always believable when it came to Ali. Who would ever suspect anything else of the time-honoured routine?
Norton claims the trash talking stopped in that third round, the one where he was supposed to fall. He told his trainer Eddie Futch, “Boss, I can beat this dude.” “You can do it if you do as you’re told,” Futch shot back.
Looking back at the fight, it should have been stopped in the 11th or 12th rounds. Ali makes it to be bell because of course referees are never willing to stop it that late but it’s so tough to watch Ali stubbornly allow his shattered face be so tempting a target over and over. Of course, that’s a thoroughly modern day take using 21st century standards and hindsight and the knowledge that Ali’s jaw was broken.
“He was laughing and joking last night and now look at him,” bitches Cosell as the seemingly endless final round confirms the unexpected outcome.
After the decision is confirmed, the two fighters huddle together around Cosell’s microphone at the centre of the mob scene which engulfs them.
“Now, what do you say?” prods Norton. “I say I was dead wrong and most of the country was dead wrong!” replies Cosell.
“You’re always wrong,” mumbles Ali through his swelling face before being ushered away. The audio is incredible and unfiltered. And Norton’s pure joy is especially gripping. The juxtaposed visuals of his tiny entourage embracing him contrasting with the sight of the losing fighter staggering back to his locker room is jarring and fascinating.
There’s the luxury in hindsight, too, of enjoying Howard Cosell’s immediate obituary, consigning Ali to, as he terms it, “fisting history”. He’s a spent force, he tells the ABC audience, obviously unable to see into a future that contains two revenge wins over Norton and, much more significantly, the Rumble in the Jungle victory over George Foreman in Zaire 18 months later and subsequently 1975’s Thrilla in Manila against Frazier.
The day after he lost to Norton, Ali welcomed the suddenly famous victor to his hospital bed. He veered into mentor mode, warning Norton about the bad money habits, the “fast women, and hangers-on” that were headed his way. And he also primed Norton for the rematch six months later.
After he recovered and began to regain his focus, Ali and his team devised the plan to have him spend 15 weeks in seclusion, training at his camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. Except for a few trademark movements of his feet in the early rounds of that rematch, there was no messing around.
“When we met in the ring for the referee’s instructions,” Norton recalls, “he wasn’t making faces, talking trash about my mother, or trying to psyche me out. He was strictly business.”
September will be the 50th anniversary of a split decision that went the other way in LA and it will also mark ten years since Norton’s passing. Ali took the third one at Yankee Stadium in 1976, just as real signs of decline were becoming all too evident.
Norton journeyed out the rest of his career and enjoyed retirement less encumbered by the very public travails of his great opponent. He survived a horrific car crash in the 1980s but managed to generally enjoy the memories of that singular peak.
It gets lost in the tailwind of the Frazier win and maybe it was a dull fight for which Ali was under prepared and a little overweight. But Norton rightly entered boxing’s Hall of Fame in spite of a general tendency to forget what he achieved. As he would one day write when reflecting back, “the trouble with beating living legends is that nobody believes you did it even after it happened.”