50 Years Ago Today: Ken Norton Scores Huge Upset Over Muhammad Ali

By James Slater - 03/31/2023 - Comments

The boxing world was still getting over the momentous shock a young, raw, and savagely powerful George Foreman unleashed in January of that year; “Big George” destroying an unbeaten Joe Frazier to take the world heavyweight crown. Just a little over two months later, another, arguably bigger shock took place in the sport’s premiere weight division.

31 year old Muhammad Ali had reeled off ten straight wins since losing his unbeaten record against “Smokin’ Joe,” this in the it-lived-up-to-the-hype “Fight of the Century.” Fighting at what would today be looked at as a possessed pace (ten fights in just 19 months), Ali was gunning for a rematch with Frazier. At least he was until two things happened. Firstly, Frazier was turned into a yo-yo by Foreman, and Ali was then himself upset, this by a largely unknown ex-Marine named Ken Norton.

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After the night of March 31 he endured in San Diego, Ali would be left nursing a second defeat, and a broken jaw. Ali now had two painful (to his ego mostly) defeats to avenge.

Norton, a year-and-a-half younger than Ali, was 29-1 (the sole loss coming at the hands of Jose Luis Garcia, the loss to be avenged in 1975) and the man from Jacksonville, Illinois had won 13 fights on the spin leading up to the shot at Ali. With the NABF title on the line, to say nothing of the opportunity to change his entire life overnight, Norton spent many weeks both whipping himself into tremendous physical condition and also studying tapes of Ali.

With the great Eddie Futch training him, Norton was armed with a superb game plan. While Norton had also picked up numerous things about Ali himself – namely, Ali’s pectoral muscle would twitch a split-second before “The Greatest” let loose with a left jab. As the superb Modern Martial Artist video says on the subject of Norton’s upset win over Ali, it would take “insane reflexes” to be able to time Ali’s pectoral flex, but Norton just so happened to have “insane reflexes.”

Ali soon found out that he was in for a tough night. Out jabbed by the cross-armed, physically strong, immensely motivated Norton, a somewhat underprepared and overlooking Ali was taking more shots than he had done at any time other than in the Frazier epic. Norton, along with his jab, was scoring with his left hook and his lead right.

Ali was effective when he was able to dance and stick and move; to float, this not allowing Norton to get set. But Ali was getting the worst of it when the two went at it up close. And Norton could punch. Norton, building up a lead that had the crowd and commentator Howard Cosell in a growing state of shock, also had stamina to burn and he had some of his best success in the later rounds. It was somewhere around the 11th round when Norton broke Ali’s jaw. For the longest time, the myth claimed Ali had suffered the injury in round two, yet it seems unlikely even as special and as brave a fighting man as Ali could have endured ten rounds of being hit on a broken jaw.

In any case, Ali needed a KO to win and he couldn’t get it. Ali never came close to dropping Norton. It was, however, a split decision, with Norton winning by scores of 7-4 and 5-4, the third judge somehow having it for Ali at 6-5.

Nevertheless, Norton had done it and in the process of beating Ali he had thrown the heavyweight division into an even more chaotic state. Joe Frazier began the year of 1973 as the undisputed, universally agreed best heavyweight on the planet. Now who was deserving of the distinction – Foreman? Norton?

Ali, as super-special as he was, would eventually “straighten it all out,” this by avenging the loss to Norton (in another close affair, also a split decision), then evening the score with Frazier (this via unanimous decision in a disappointing fight), and then toppling the “invincible” Foreman to close out a quite magnificent 1974.

But on the night of March 31, 1973, all that was a long way away. And plenty of people left the Sports Arena in San Diego wondering seriously if Ali was finished as a top fighter.