By Frank Lotierzo
Joe Frazier and Ken Norton were sparring partners, friends, elite heavyweight fighters circa 1967-75 and were both trained by Eddie Futch at some point during their prime. And perhaps the biggest link between them is that they both fought Muhammad Ali three times and beat him the first time they met. None of the three bouts between Ali and Frazier were controversial. However, that isn’t the case with the Ali-Norton trilogy. Norton clearly beat Ali the first time they fought and broke his jaw during the bout. Ali no doubt took Ken lightly. He was overweight at 221 pounds. Muhammad was in great shape for the rematch at 212. He dominated the first half of the fight, faded a little bit during the middle rounds and rallied down the stretch to seal the decision that he rightfully earned to even the series at 1-1.
And then there’s the rubber match which occurred 40 years ago on this date, Sept. 28, at Yankee Stadium.
Five months prior, Ali retained his undisputed heavyweight title with a unanimous but controversial decision over Jimmy Young. As a result, the narrative going into Ali-Norton III was that anytime Ali had to go the distance, he really lost and the other fighter was robbed. No fighter benefited more from this narrative than Norton because a majority of the 39 rounds they fought were close. As for Ali getting gift decisions, I saw every one of his fights in their entirety live or on tape, and the only time Muhammad Ali ever won the decision in a fight where I felt he was out-pointed was when he fought Jimmy Young. I scored the bout 7-6-2 in rounds in favor of Young. So I don’t want to hear that Doug Jones, Norton in their rubber match or Earnie Shavers beat him.
By the time Ali-Norton III rolled around, Ali, 34, was retiring and un-retiring almost every other day, or so it seemed. Muhammad knew that Norton, although not a physically damaging match-up for him, was a hard guy for him to dominate stylistically. Norton crumbled against big punchers, but excelled against technicians and boxers the likes of Ali, Jimmy Young and Larry Holmes. Ken had all the confidence in the world going up against Muhammad and Ali sensed it.
From a technical standpoint, Norton was an almost unsolvable riddle for Ali. Norton’s jab is what gave Ali the most trouble because Norton held his right hand in front of his face and would block Ali’s jab effectively and was able to counter with an accurate jab of his own that upset Muhammad’s rhythm. His unorthodox cross-arm defense allowed him to absorb Ali’s shoe-shining combinations and get inside to deliver hard body shots. Ali was particularly adept at avoiding right hands throughout his career but Kenny did not throw many conventional right hands and favored the overhand right; it was this blow that broke Ali’s jaw in their first fight.
Norton carried the fight to Ali, but not in the unrelenting style of Joe Frazier. Throughout his career, Muhammad was most sharp when his opponent carried the fight to him; however, during the last five rounds of his third meeting with Norton, Ali found he was very effective leading with his fast left-jab and follow-up right hands. Often when Ali stepped to Norton, because he wasn’t a one-punch knockout hitter, Ken wouldn’t back away and therefore was in range for Muhammad to nail flush. Those quick shots blunted Norton in his tracks. Ali also had one weapon for which Norton had no answer; his legs. When Muhammad circled and moved to either side while firing his left-jab, Norton couldn’t get to him without leaving himself open. Whenever Ali needed to bank a round, he reverted to moving and dancing. The problem for him in 1976 was that he was 34 years old and had to pick his spots because he was unable to sustain steady movement.
The rubber match between Ali and Norton wasn’t as physically taxing for Ali and nowhere near as entertaining as the “Thrilla In Manila” a year earlier, but it did have its ebbs and flows. Ali didn’t circle and dance as much as he did three years earlier in their second meeting, and Norton was pretty much the same stylistically, as he looked to get inside and work Muhammad’s body before working his way up to the head.
Ali won via a unanimous decision. Referee Arthur Mercante had it 8-6-1 and the judges, Harold Lederman and Barney Smith, had it 8-7. The AP reporter scored it 9-6 for Ali, but in the eyes of some fans and media the UPI reporter got it right when he scored the fight 8-7 for Norton.
After the bout, CompuBox, who in the simplest terms are punch counters (and in my opinion useless), reviewed the fight. They said Norton out-landed Ali in punches connected 286-199. And to that I say those who tabulated those numbers had to be Ken’s parent’s because there’s no way Norton averaged 19 clean punches per-round for 15 rounds. And when you take into account that Norton barely threw a punch in the first and 15th rounds, that means he had to land 22 per round in the other rounds and that wasn’t the case.
Ken Norton was unorthodox in everything he did in the ring except throw a left-hook. Yes, he pursued Ali, jabbing, winging overhand rights at his head and left-hooks to the body when he had him against the ropes, but he didn’t land enough nor was he busy enough during their third fight. Ali was the busier fighter and threw more jabs and finishing punches when the fight hung in the balance. Ali was hurt once for a brief second from a body shot in the sixth round, and Norton was shook two or three times from right hands during the last third of the bout. After eight rounds the fight was even at 4-4. Ali was much busier and fought with more purpose and urgency than Norton in five of the remaining seven rounds, four at the absolute least. It was during that stretch that Ali finally figured out that he could hit Norton almost on call with right hands if he initiated the action and he did in big chunks of those rounds.
In a close fight against a popular champion with an overwhelming presence the likes of Muhammad Ali, every round is huge. Before going out for the final round Norton’s corner instructed him to play it safe because he had the fight won, and he didn’t need to give Ali a chance to get lucky. Conversely, Ali was told he needed the last round to keep the title. With that Ali went out and did what he always did; he sucked it up and did the one thing he could do to win a single round against any heavyweight who ever lived as long as he had the energy — and that was circle and box while flicking out left jabs and sporadic right hands. Ali, although clearly spent, dominated the first two minutes and thirty seconds of the final round with his typical heart and courage. Norton tried to erupt in the final seconds but he missed with almost every punch he threw and other than screaming at Ali when the bell sounded, the round was lost and with it, the fight.
I saw the fight 8-6-1 Ali, and it’s plausible it could’ve been 9-6 or 8-7. What I failed to see then, and fail to see now, is the cry that Norton was robbed…No Way! In September of 1976, Ali was about 100 days away from turning 35 and was at the end of the road as a great fighter. He hated to train and make the sacrifices he used to. His legs were long gone and every move he made was forced instead of being instinctive. His chin was now reachable and he fought lazy. The life and death struggle with Joe Frazier exactly a year earlier sapped whatever he had left as a great fighter.
Ali’s title was there for the taking, but Kenny foolishly chose to box more and fight less which suited Ali perfectly. In truth Ali’s bouts against Jimmy Young and Norton III in 1976 were lousy compared to his high standard. After 1974 Muhammad couldn’t fight all-out for a sustained period. However, Norton only fought in flurries during their rubber match and he wasn’t as good at is as Ali was. When he should’ve gone after it down the stretch in rounds 10-15, he lacked the gumption and the killer-instinct to finish and played it safe, something that has never been said about Muhammad Ali. And that’s what separates the greats and the near greats.
Under the best case scenario for Ken Norton, the fight came down to the 15th round. And during it, Norton was the aggressor, but he wasn’t close to being the effective aggressor and in the view of many ringsiders it cost him the bout.
Yes, Muhammad Ali won the rubber match against Ken Norton. He didn’t beat him up or dominate him, but he clearly outscored him and legitimately retained his undisputed heavyweight title.
Frank Lotierzo can be reached at GlovedFist@Gmail.com