45 years ago, the one and only Muhammad Ali ruled the roost as far as the talent-rich heavyweight division was concerned. Ali, at age 34, was not the sublime, untouchable dancing master he had been; nor was he the superbly conditioned warrior who had taken everything a primed George Foreman could offer. Ali was, though, a still-proud, still tough, still unwilling to walk away master of the game. Just about. Ali, after all the wars he’d been through up until that point (Joe Frazier I and III, Foreman) was getting away with retaining his crown. Just.
Ali, with a combination as lethal as anything he could launch and land in his 1960’s peak – this comprising of cunning, mental psyche, and an unparalleled level of admiration from the scoring officials – was still able to hang onto the world title. Ken Norton, who had pushed Ali to the brink twice, over 24 gruelling non-title rounds, found this out the hard way on this day back in 1976.
Boxing their rubber-match at Yankee Stadium in New York, Ali and Norton wound up giving the world an at times fascinating, at times tough to watch, at times exciting 15-round battle that basically had no winner other than in terms of global appeal, stardom and adulation.
Norton, the exquisitely-conditioned former marine, had always given Ali nothing but hell (and how fascinating it is to wonder how Norton would have done against the peak, 1966 version of Ali). Now, in their one and only world title showdown, Norton was determined to lay it all on the line in an effort at showing he was the better man; that he was the heavyweight king. Norton was as good as his word. For 14 rounds. It was a close, tough, testing and engrossing chess match. Norton, punishing Ali’s body as well as his head and ability to take a great shot, fell for none of Ali’s mid-ring trash-talking. To the contrary – Kenny talked back at Ali, and maybe got the better of things (at one point in the fight, Ali was admonished by the referee, Arthur Mercante, for talking. Norton never received the same tongue-lashing).
It was an oh, so close fight. But then, inexplicably, Norton’s corner told their fighter not to take any chances in the final round; instead telling the challenger to box and play it safe. Norton had bags full of energy left, yet he did what he was told. All three judges gave Ali, who was more aggressive if also more fatigued, the 15th round. It proved crucial.
Ali won the fight by two margins of 8 rounds to 7, and by one score of 8 rounds to 6. Could Norton have pushed the ageing Ali hard in that final round, and in doing so would he have won the session? Very possibly. If he had, and if Norton had been awarded the 15th, he would have won the fight and the title. And the rubber-match.
But Norton, or his corner, fell to Ali’s magic. Later, Ali said he had done just enough to have earned the win. Later still, in retirement, Ali admitted he had never been able to master Norton or his style. Norton went to his grave fully believing he had won two of his three fights with Ali.
Together, Ali and Norton gave the world 39 of the most evenly fought rounds in heavyweight championship history.