My students look at me funny when I talk about watching sports in the 1970s. Every Saturday afternoon was reserved for the Wide World of Sports. It is not like today where one can turn on the TV and find several 24 hour sports networks. In the early 70s, the greatest athlete was none other than Muhammad Ali. It was always a thrill whenever Ali showed up on TV, especially when Howard Cosell was doing the interviewing. Never have an athlete and an announcer been so linked as those two. Ali was a boxer and showman unlike any other the world had seen. He still is the most well-known athlete on the planet, even more than Michael Jordan. In March of 1973, a man born in Jacksonville, Illinois not only defeated Ali, but also broke Ali’s jaw. It was a fight that shocked the world. Ali had only lost to Joe Frazier previously. However, Ali was beginning to move from his early 30s to his mid 30s. Norton, 29, changed the boxing landscape in the 1970s and gave Ali his hardest challenges in the ring over the next three years.
Leading up the fight, Ali had not taken Norton seriously. In the prefight discussion, Cosell mentions Ali’s attitude and light 10 oz. gloves and how those gloves could harm a man. In the first round, the newspapers reported that Norton had broken Ali’s jaw. Trainer Angelo Dundee wanted to stop the fight, but Ali would not let Dundee throw in the towel.
The fight, seen here in its entirety, shows Norton’s unorthodox style of dragging his right foot while putting more pressure on his left.
The resulting decision for Norton reshaped the boxing landscape for Ali. Had Ali won, George Foreman would have been next. However, with Norton’s win, a new champion would determine the order of battle.
Norton had led a checkered and unusual life. Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, Norton grew up in the central Illinois town wanting to get out. Boxing was no where on the horizon for him. Football and track were if he could make it to adulthood. Sports Illustrated’s Dan Levin described Norton’s early life:
He was kind of a wild kid, not delinquent wild but wild in a way that made it seem he would never live to grow up. One day when he was 8 he raced a train to a crossing on his bike and lost. There was not much left of the bike, but all of Ken seemed to be there still. At 14, on another bike, he was hit by a trailer truck and wound up on its hood, again unscathed. Scratch another bike. In high school he lettered in basketball, football and track and got numerous scholarship offers.
He chose Northeast Missouri State and immediately was hit by a car, breaking his collarbone. Six months afterward he drove his car into the side of a bridge, where it hung by the rear door from a piece of railing 50 feet above a lake. Later, on a bet, he took eight sleeping pills and had to have his stomach pumped.
Eventually, Norton joined the Marines and it was there he learned to box. Norton said, “The Marines were tough but they taught me to be my own man.” From 1965 to 1967, Norton won the All Marine Corps Boxing Championship. Shortly before his release from the Marines, Norton turned pro.
Norton struggled for several years to eek out a living. When Norton was signed to fight Ali, he was ranked number seven in the world. He was not the number one contender and Ali saw the fight more as a tuneup before Foreman. Norton saw the fight as an opportunity to put food on the table for his young family, including his son and future NFL linebacker, Ken Norton, Jr. Norton never forgot that about Ali. For this reason the two would meet again six months later in September of 1973. Today, years take place between title fights for some boxers. But in the 70s, it did not take long.
Ali was in much better shape for the second fight. He trained hard. The results of the second fight reshaped both men’s careers. Sports Illustrated wrote of the fight:
Ali won the first half of the fight. By the middle Norton’s youth and strength began to flourish. By the 12th round Norton had caught up, and the match looked so even that Ali decided he had to gamble. He met Norton in the middle of the ring with combinations of punches and a show of determination that made the younger man stop his steady advancing. Ali stood in and fought, and at the bell it was still undecided whether he had won. Referee Dick Young’s vote carried it for him [...] Ali himself was so unsettled that seconds after the bell he took a poke at Bundini, who turned around and swung at Bingham. Bob Aram, Ali’s lawyer, might have wanted to swing at all three of them. He had in his pocket a $10 million offer from a London promoter for a fight with Foreman and another offer for a rematch with Frazier in December. Now both fights were endangered. The offers hung on Ali beating Norton, which he did—but perhaps not convincingly enough.
Ali would win the split decision but it would be another three years before they fought again. Some boxing figures and sports writers had Norton winning the second fight. In the meantime, Norton became an actor while Ali would fight the biggest names in Frazier and Foreman. A third fight would take place in 1976. For Norton, these were big paydays that allowed him to not only help himself, but others. He began doing charity work and continues to do so today.
The third fight was just as controversial as the results of the second.
Ken Norton was a dog that would hound Ali the rest of his days. While Ali wanted to fights the Fraziers and Foremans of the boxing world, he was left trying to fully defeat Ken Norton in a manner that would satisfy Ali’s critics. He never did. And in the end for Ali, maybe that was best. His best days were either well behind him or taken from him for refusing to serve in the military during Vietnam. For over three years in his prime, Ali did not box and could not get a license to do so. When he got his license back in the early 70s, Joe Frazier was who he wanted to fight. Ali did three times, and decidedly beat him twice. But it was Ken Norton who gave Ali everything. BY the time it took Ali to get Norman off his back, Ali was past his prime and George Foreman was just entering his. The year Ali spent fighting Norton was one he would never get back.
For Further Reading:
Going the Distance : The Ken Norton Story
Believe: Journey from Jacksonville