While the new Yankee Stadium continues to build its history, with Yankees like Masahiro Tanaka, Carlos Beltran, and Aroldis Chapman as its centerpiece, the old Stadium had a treasure trove of memories too. There was world class football, music, and boxing in the original Yankee Stadium. In addition to housing the winningest baseball team of all time, the ball park in the Bronx hosted what many consider the greatest football game of all time – the 1958 NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts. There were classic concerts – Billy Joel and U2 to name a couple, papal visits, and the 9/11 memorial service for first responders. There were the two Joe Louis – Max Schmelling boxing matches, the second of which saw Louis, “The Brown Bomber” exact revenge and defend his heavyweight title against the pride of Nazi Germany, Schmelling, in the home of the Bronx Bombers. And it was the site of the third and final boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton.
Ali passed away this past Sunday at the age of 74. (Norton passed away in 2013 after having suffered a series of strokes). Ali has been called by many, including himself, the greatest (boxer) of all time. Whether or not you agree, you have to acknowledge that Norton was one of Ali’s toughest opponents. In their first (non-title) bout in 1973, Norton broke Ali’s jaw and defeated the former champion, who was the number one contender at the time. This was possibly the only time that Ali was ever left speechless. About six months later, they met again in another fight that went the full 12 rounds. This time Ali, ranked second, defeated Norton, who had taken over the top contender spot.
By the time they met for the third and final time, Ali had won the Heavyweight title for the second time in his career. The first two fights, both fought in San Diego, were split decisions among the three judges. The third match, set at Yankee Stadium in September, 1976, was scheduled for 15 rounds, though Ali predicted that he would “…knock that sucker out inside five rounds.” Ali received $6MM up front to Norton’s $1MM for the fight, plus $4.5MM in revenue to Norton’s $450K. While Ali received the bulk of the money and was favored 8:5 to win the fight, it was a very different story in the ring. The fight turned out to be one of the most controversial heavyweight title bouts ever fought.
Intrigued by the legend of the fight, I watched the fight on youtube and kept my own, very amateur round-by-round scorecard. Here is the result from my point of view:
Round 1: As you would expect, the pair spent most of the first round feeling each other out. Ali had altered his style for the fight, keeping his feet flat rather than dancing around his opppnent as he had done previously. Not many punches were thrown between the two and most missed, though Ali landed a solid right and left. My Card: Ali
Between rounds, Ali led the Yankee Stadium crown in chants of “Ali, Ali”.
Round 2: Norton came out more aggressively and landed some hard punches to the head and body of Ali. The champion came on stronger as the round progressed and landed some solid “one-two” combos. The two were yapping at each other after the bell rang to end the round. My Card: Norton
Round 3:Norton was the clear aggressor in the third round and threw many more punches than the champ. He also landed a hard right to the side of Ali’s head, but most punches missed or were blocked. My Card: Norton
Round 4: Ali came out much more aggressively in the first minute of the round, landing several effective punches. Norton landed two more hard overhand rights to Ali’s chin and head, but Ali landed more punches throughout the round. My Card: Ali
Round 5: For the majority of the round, Ali did his “rope-a-dope” act, in which he verbally egged on his opponent and tried to tire him out by having him throw too many punches. The move was met with boos by the crowd. Norton hammered away at the body, specifically the rib cage, while Ali playfully wiggled his butt against the ropes. Ali was warned for the second time in the fight for holding the back of Norton’s neck while he threw a punch. My Card: Norton
Ali’s guarantee to knock out Norton within six rounds came and went. Neither boxer showed any chinks in their armor.
Round 6: The round saw more of Ali’s mugging and a continued attack to the body by Norton. The challenger caught Ali off-guard while he was clowning around, landing a powerful left and right. But it was a left to the right side that visibly hurt Ali late in the round. My Card: Norton
Round 7: Ali went back to business, after having possibly wasted two rounds. He landed some good punches and kept Norton off-balance. The round could have been a draw, but I gave a slight edge to Ali. My Card: Ali
Round 8: Norton was the aggressor again, though Ali wasn’t sitting back either. Norton landed another hard kidney punch and delivered a flurry of lefts to the body that kept Ali off the attack. My Card: Norton
Through eight rounds, neither boxer, except for Ali for literally two seconds, sat on their stools between rounds. The fight was as much a battle of mind games as it was a contest of physical endurance.
Round 9: Ali began a boxer’s version of dancing (footwork) from the start of the round. He landed several left-handed jabs and some combinations as he circled around Norton. The challenger attempted to cut off his path, but his only effective punches came late in the round. My Card: Ali
Round 10: This was the best round for both fighters since early on in the fight. Early in the round, Ali got his supporters chanting his name and landed solid punches. Norton didn’t back off and responded to his corner’s call to “break up the rhythm and jab” by throwing several jabs at Ali towards the end of the round. My Card: Even
Round 11: Both the crowd and Ali were surprised when Norton broke out his own version of “rope-a-dope” in attempt to wear down Ali. The champ landed a consecutive trio of hard blows to Norton, who quickly countered with a couple of his own. Norton threw a punch after the bell and then screamed in Ali’s face. The champ responded by trying to slap him with his gloved left hand. My Card: Ali
With four rounds to go, it was anyone’s match. The key to beating a champion without a knockout or technical knockout, is to overwhelmingly win the decision. In the final round of a close fight, the judges will go with the defending champion. Through 11 rounds, I had it scored 5-5 with one round even. Most of the expert panelists on the closed circuit telecast had Norton ahead on their unofficial scorecards.
Round 12: Norton landed the more powerful blows in the round and momentarily staggered Ali. Just before the bell to end the round, Ali either landed a punch to Norton’s right eye or stuck the thumb of his glove in it. Either way, it caused Norton to wince in pain. My Card: Norton
Round 13: There was a lot of movement around the ring without a lot of blows that landed. Late in the round, however, the two stood toe-to-toe, landing some hard punches and blocking others. A close round. My Card: Norton
Round 14: Wear and tear finally began to slow both boxers in the second-to-last round. There were more missed punches than punches that landed. Despite looking more tired than Norton, Ali managed to land a number of good left-right combinations. My Card: Ali
Round 15: Ali was the more active fighter for most of the round, but not many of his punches landed. Norton finished strong, hurting Ali with a pair of blows just before the final bell. My Card: Norton
I scored the fight 8-6 in favor of Norton with one round even. Two of the three panelists had Norton winning, with the third panelist calling the fight a draw. The broadcast analyst also gave Norton the fight, but the three official judges awarded Ali a (stunningly) unanimous decision, (8-7, 8-7, 8-6). Post-fight, Ali was not his usual boastful self. He knew he was fortunate to retain his title and was a bit sheepish about it. In October, Ali told interviewer Mark Cronin, “Kenny’s style is too difficult for me. I can’t beat him, and I sure don’t want to fight him again. I honestly thought he beat me in Yankee Stadium, but the judges gave it to me, and I’m grateful to them.”
Norton, meanwhile, was completely distraught after the judges’ scorecards were read by Public Address Announcer Bob Sheppard. Head-in-hand, tears flowed down his face as Norton stood in his corner in disbelief. True to his word, Ali never fought Norton again. He knew that there was no way he would beat him in another match. Ali eventually lost the title to Leon Spinks before regaining the World Boxing Association’s (WBA) version of the title. It was an unprecedented third time-title capture.
Norton never won the title in the ring, but was handed the championship belt by the World Boxing Council (WBC) after it was stripped from Spinks. The WBC did so because Spinks fought a rematch with Ali instead of facing Norton, who was the mandatory next opponent. He would lose the title in 15 rounds to Larry Holmes in 1978.
The public and private Ali were very different people, but after three fights, Ali came away with nothing but respect for Norton. May they both rest in peace.