On September 28, 1976, Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali fought for the third time. More than 30,000 spectators filed into Yankee Stadium that night.
The crowd would have been even larger if not for the NYPD strike. So many feared an in evening the South Bronx that the promoters sold just 10 walk-up tickets at the gate. Thanks to the lack of cops, though, spectators in lower and upper decks poured from the stands onto the field, creating a dense horde around the ring, which seemed stationed somewhere between the pitching mound and second base.
This was one of those fights that froze the nation into attention. No fighter had battled Ali the way Norton did. He’d beaten Ali by split decision back in 1973, winning his first heavyweight title and becoming the second man–after Joe Frazier–to ever defeat The Greatest. But all anyone could remember was how Norton broke Ali’s jaw. And how, when Norton visited his foe in the hospital, Ali reportedly told him that he never wanted to fight him again.
But they did fight again, less than six months later. Ali took the belt back in another closely-fought split decision. The world had to wait three more years for the fighters to square off in a rubber match. But now here they were.
Norton, who died on Wednesday at the age of 70, will forever be tied to New York. The champion boxer fought just four of his 50 bouts here. Yet the city has hosted some of the highest highs and lowest lows of the his career.
In March 1975, in Madison Square Garden, he regained the heavyweight tile he’d lost to Ali with a fifth round knockout against Jerry Quarry. He later told Ring Magazine an uppercut in that fight was the hardest punch he’d ever landed.
He knocked out his next four opponents, earning him this next shot against Ali.
“I was at my best that night, in the best shape I ever was,” Norton later told the New York Times.
The two men fought 15 tough rounds. Ali, more crafty than quick at this stage of his career, sought to keep Norton off of him with constant jabs, before drawing him in with his famous rope-a-dope.
Ali! Ali! Ali! the crowd chanted every couple of rounds.
But Norton had learned from George Foreman’s mistake–rather than punching himself out with furious offensives when Ali was on the ropes, Norton landed precision strikes around Ali’s defensive shell.
Norton stalked him around the ring, pounding him with body shots and uppercuts whenever he closed the space. Ali danced and flailed his arms and talked through many rounds, popping Norton’s head with quick shots at every opening.
The fighters traded blows in the 15th round, Ali jabbing and Norton swinging. When the final bell sounded, Norton confidently shouted at Ali. Ali turned and slowly walked to his corner.
Norton raised his arms jubilantly as his team stormed the ring to lift him up. Meanwhile, Ali leaned forward on the ropes, his head down.
“I think Norton’s won this fight!” the television announcer declared, noting that he scored the fight nine rounds to six for Norton. “I’d be very surprised if Norton has not won this fight.”
Red Smith, the renowned New York Times sports columnist, scored the fight 10 rounds to five for Norton.
The stadium buzzed as the crowd awaited the official count.
It was Ali by unanimous decision–two judges had it 8-7, another had it 8-6 with one round even.
Norton burst into tears. He buried his face in his left palm and shook his head.
“I was never the same fighter after that,” Norton would tell Smith. “I never trained so hard again, never could put the same feeling into it.”
Eight months after the Ali fight, he would return to New York, rolling through the undefeated, 25-year-old Duane Bobick with a first round knock out at MSG. It was an impressive follow-up after the tough loss, a great fighter displaying his dominance. But Norton was on the precipice of the down slope.
He’d have one final title shot against Larry Holmes in 1978, losing yet another excruciatingly close split decision.
Three years later, he was back at MSG for another first round knock-out. Except this time, it was Norton dropping to the canvas. It was his third loss since the Bronx fight. But this one was the saddest–the venerable former champ, propped against the ropes, taking a series of violent haymakers before the referee stepped in to end the fight.
That final image–the dazed and bruised face of a proud fighter refusing to lie down–was enough to bring some boxing fans to tears.
Norton retired after that fight. He left the sport with 42 wins under his belt, 33 of them by knockout.
But in many ways, his legacy has been defined by the fight that he didn’t win. Instead of being known as “a Championship Fighter Who Broke Ali’s Jaw,” as the Times‘ obituary headline dubbed him, Norton would have went down as the only man to beat The Greatest twice.
Perhaps it’s fair to think of him that way anyway.
That night in the Bronx, as Norton doubled over sobbing, the crowd that had been chanting Ali’s name was now booing Ali’s victory. Norton had won over New York.
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