Half a century ago today, former heavyweight king Muhammad Ali was on a mission to put things right. Ali, at age 31, was no longer the dancing master he had once been. Ali had suffered a painful defeat at the hands of a former Marine who wanted what Ali once had, namely the heavyweight crown and all that goes with it. Ken Norton shocked the world in March of 1973, this when he broke Ali’s jaw, beat him up for long periods of the fight, outwitted him, and went home with the 12 round split decision.
Ali, swallowing blood as well as his pride in San Diego, would not give in on his goal of regaining his former majesty, of ruling the planet once again. After enduring some uncomfortable time with a wired-shut, healing jaw, Ali went back to his Deer Lake training camp a man possessed with regaining his youth. It was an unwinnable task, but Ali’s work ethic saw him take his body back to the 1960s. At least in terms of weight, of trimness, of readiness to rumble. Whether or not Ali would be able to master Norton’s superb timing and clever, Eddie Futch implemented tactics that saw the 8/1 underdog to victory six months earlier, the world would have to wait and see.
But Ali, chopping wood, running countless miles and also sparring like a guy who had yet to taste the riches he had long since grown accustomed to (this lack of hunger and, as Ali put it, “not eatin’ right” going against him in the first Norton fight) whipped his body into beautiful fighting condition. On fight night, Ali would weigh 212, this the same weight he carried when he won the crown in ’64. Norton, no way taking things easy or relishing in the glory of the March win, also pushed himself to epic proportions in the gym and on the road. Norton wanted the repeat win, and he wanted it bad. Norton came in at a ripped 205 in Inglewood.
Prior to the rematch, the two fighters appeared on The Johnny Carson Show, and it was memorable. Ali and Norton were interviewed in their robes, the two to weigh-in on the show. Ali came on second, this because “I got whupped in the first fight.” Norton was quiet but confident. Ali was quieter than usual if also confident, or defiant and determined. But Ali seemed more interested in talking about the recent UFO sightings that had blazed across the news. Ali said he had been sent photos, and “moving films” that “proved” they were out there.
“Are you sure you’re up for this fight?” Carson quipped, the audience breaking out in laughter.
Ali was deadly serious – about the UFOs he was certain were out there, “but people don’t wanna talk about ’em,” and about the fight that was set for the following Monday night.
What transpired was a fight that showed two things: Norton’s March win was no fluke, and Ali’s sheer desire to overcome could never, ever be questioned. It was another hard, gruelling, testing fight for both men. Ali was up on his toes early, looking to flummox Norton the way he had his 1960s opponents. Norton was pressing forward, looking again to out-punch Ali and his speed with his own quite astonishing ability to time his rival’s shots (Norton had noticed, prior to fight-one, how Ali’s pectoral muscle would twitch a split-second before he let loose with his best weapon, his jab).
It was nip-and-tuck all the way. Norton began to cut off the ring in the fifth round, and his jab was almost as effective a weapon as Ali’s. Fans in attendance knew they were watching another fight that could go either way. How great was Norton? How much did Ali still have? Both men reached into their respective reservoirs in a effort at giving the watching world the answer they wanted.
The pace continued red-hot, the two sleek, superbly conditioned heavyweights who were not heavy at all showing us every aspect of The Sweet Science: ring IQ, balance, timing, an ability to set traps, an ability to avoid traps, defensive skill, punch perfection. Heart and desire.
With Ali still bouncing on his toes and with Norton still coming forward, the fight went down to the wire, and to the final round. Nobody knew it at the time (though some fans may well have suspected it) but whoever won the last three minutes would win the fight. Ali boxed one of his finest rounds in round 12. Full of energy, his fast hands still sizzling, Ali gave Norton a taste of what it might have been like for him had he fought “The Greatest” when he was in his pre-draft prime. Ali forced Norton backwards for the first time, he buzzed “The Fighting Marine” with a right hand that was swiftly followed up with a couple of uppercuts. Norton was nowhere close to falling, not a chance, but Ali had sealed the deal. Just.
It was mighty close – 7-5, 6-5 for Ali, 6-5 for Norton.
But there were no arguments. These two were now 1-1, though, and the rubber-match, the decider, would surely have to come. It did, but not before Ali, showing his eternal greatness, knocked out George Foreman (who had by this time ruined Norton inside two rounds) to regain the title.
Had Ali failed to avenge his earlier loss to Norton, the world would very likely have never seen the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Indeed, on this day 50 years ago, Muhammad Ali’s very career was truly on the line.