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Ken Norton: He Boxed A Near Masterpiece Against Ali, Yet Somehow Came Up Short



By James Slater: Former World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight king Ken Norton has been in the news this week, but unfortunately for unpleasant reasons. The 69-year-old sadly suffered a stroke this week and he is currently in hospital, fighting hard.

Fans of an older age remember Norton well. Willing to consistently face the best in a career that lasted three decades, Norton earned most praise for his three big fights with the incomparable Muhammad Ali. But it was fight-three, the only fight of the series with the world title on the line, that really showed Norton’s talent, skill and fitness. The third meeting was also the most controversial of the three bouts and the rubber-match is still talked about frequently today. For though Norton boxed magnificently that day in the late summer of 1976, appearing to most people to have won hands down, the three judges inexplicably went against him.

Norton boxed better than he’d ever done, yet he couldn’t get out from under Ali’s massive shadow.

Ali and Norton, these two long retired fighters who are both in poor health yet are fighting their ailments with the heart they showed in the ring, had a history, that’s for sure.

Their first meeting inside a boxing ring was in March of 1973, with Norton pulling off a huge upset as he won on points over twelve rounds against the come backing Ali – becoming only the second man ever to beat him. The two men met again, later that same year. With his broken jaw healed, and this time having dedicated himself to far more strenuous training, Ali got his revenge. Still, the return bout had been another hard and close fight. But Ali won it, just.

Then, on September 28th, 1976, with the world title that he had regained in such great style against the seemingly unbeatable George Foreman two years earlier on the line, Ali and Norton met for the final time. What followed was yet another excruciatingly close bout, one that would, incredibly, as with fights one and two, be decided by the very last round.

The defending champ tried all his intimidation tactics. Ali began winding up his arm in an exaggerated fashion- giving off the impression of a fighter who simply couldn’t wait to get it on. This not only failed to intimidate Norton, it was actually kind of funny. There was the great Ali, with his right arm whistling round like a windmill! Then the first bell rang. Ali rushed over to ring centre, only to stop dead in his tracks as Norton met him for combat. Ali knew what kind of a night he had in front of him, despite his wishes to the contrary. He knew a quick win was extremely unlikely. Fighting in a way that enabled him to use every last ounce of his cunning, the fading Ali managed to get through the long rounds. He tried all of his tricks. Ali rope-a doped, he danced as often as his thirty-four year old body would allow, he spoke to Norton frequently and he went toe-to-toe with his foe when there was no other alternative.

Norton, magnificently conditioned as usual, was in great shape. He was sure he would win. Time, he felt, was on his side. Though only a couple of years younger than the champ, Kenny had far less wear and tear on his body than did The Greatest. This was evident on a number of occasions, as the challenger both hurt and out-fought Ali. A particularly hard looking body shot almost doubled Ali over at one point. Still, the two-time heavyweight king showed his usual defiance and courage. At times the huge crowd were on their feet as both men went punch for punch. But with the erosion he had been subjected to, the result of over fifty pro bouts, nineteen of them world title fights, Ali couldn’t sustain such action for long. Also, when attempting to revive the success he had enjoyed over Foreman when rope-a-doping, Norton foiled his plans by refusing to punch himself out like Big George. Punching around Ali’s guard, as apposed to shooting blows up the middle, as Foreman had done, Ken enjoyed some success. At one point, when Ali tried to respond to a crowd that was cheering his name, by opening his mouth and mocking Norton in a manner that seemed to say, “look who the fans want to win, sucker!”, he was met by a hard punch from the no-nonsense challenger. Was the old Ali magic at last starting to diminish?

Well, yes and no. Sure, his fighting prowess was no way near what it had once been, Ali was human after all. But his influence over the scoring judges was more mesmerising than ever. At the end of fifteen gruelling rounds, gruelling for Ali mostly, a disbelieving Norton broke down in tears as he heard the unanimous decision victory for Ali reverberate around Yankee Stadium. He simply could not believe it. Neither could a good many other people. Britain’s esteemed commentator, Harry Carpenter, for example, told his audience that the decision simply could not be right. And though Norton’s corner have to take some of the blame for the loss, due to the fact that they gave their man instructions to box cautiously instead of fighting hard in the final round – this against a man who had never once come close to even flooring Norton in all their previous rounds of boxing, the fact that victory was denied Ken was unfair.

Afterwards, when asked if he thought the win he’d been given was just, Ali, looking quite annoyed at such an affront of a question, replied how he certainly was. “The judges are in there. They see.” Ali told his impertinent interviewer, “The judges know more than you do.” For his part, Norton still believes he won the fight to this very day (and just maybe, laid in hospital as he is after suffering a recent stroke, Kenny is thinking in silence about this fight, the biggest of his life). He admits the loss in fight number two was fair, but cries robbery when it comes to the rubber-match.

Ken also says that after losing in 1976, he never trusted boxing judges again. Who could really blame him? Norton boxed a near masterpiece against the greatest-ever heavyweight in history, only for the three judges at ringside to either ignore, fail to appreciate or simply misunderstand his magnum opus. The fans know how good Norton was, however, and millions of them know he won that hot day in New York.

Get well soon, Kenny!