It might be something of a morbid subject, but Muhammad Ali, a man who literally gave everything he had in the pursuit of the greatness he achieved in the ring, is, despite the ghastly health problems he has been suffering with for over three decades, outliving his former ring rivals by a quite substantial amount of time. Ali, now aged 74 and more or less housebound, has lived longer than former foes including: Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Jimmy Ellis, Sir Henry Cooper, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson and even his final ring rival, Trevor Berbick.
It is testament to the sheer strength and refusal to give up that Ali, though ailing, has done something that would have seemed most unlikely back in the mid 1908s when he was first officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His bitter rival – to his dying day – Joe Frazier, often vowed how he would “live longer than him,” yet he never did. Ali remains the king of kings even if we all wish he was in a far more able position to truly enjoy it. “The Greatest” is paying for the greatness he achieved in the ring, no doubt.
Kenny Norton, who left us in September of 2013 after having raged a battle with his own health problems – brought on by a car crash he really had no right to have been pulled alive from in 1986 – thrice fought Ali, beating him once officially, but all three times unofficially in the opinion of many. Despite his speed (even in his early 30s), his balance, his grace and his other numerous qualities, Ali was never able to get to grips with the “awkward” style (a term Norton himself disliked, as he said it suggested he was unskilled) of Norton.
Ali is deified today, but back in the early 1970s, when he first fought Norton, a colossal underdog, his critics were still very much out in force. The draft dodger would get what these people (the term today would be “haters”) knew was coming to him when he fought the brave, non-trash-talking ex-marine in San Diego on the evening of March 31st, 1973. Ali, not in the best of shape but at the same time not out of shape, endured a painful 12-rounds with the Eddie Futch-trained Norton (Futch being a fine trainer who seemed to rise to the occasion when it came to preparing his heavyweights to go to either go to battle with Ali (Joe Frazier) or befuddle him (Norton).
Legend still says that Ali, caught talking, his mouth open, got hit by Norton in the 2nd-round, his jaw being broken. To his dying day, Norton insisted, with plenty of logic, that no way could Ali have endured a further ten rounds of being punched (and Norton hit Ali plenty) with such a serious injury. No, the break occurred late in the fight, Norton always insisted, around the 11th-round. In any case, Ali was fighting for his very survival and, in great pain, he did manage to survive to the final bell 43 years ago today.
Norton was the clear winner, even if one judge, astonishingly, scored the fight in favour of the ex-champion who was seeking a shot at the new heavyweight king, the unbeatable George Foreman. Norton didn’t care about the poor scoring; he had won the biggest fight of his career and his life had changed overnight. As the immaculately conditioned fighter with the crab-like style put it himself, he was, “on cloud ten, as nine wasn’t high enough!”
Norton always had great respect for Ali, perhaps this is why he was never to fall victim to Ali’s pre-fight and mid-ring trash-talking; insults Norton later referred to as “juvenile.” “I didn’t fall for anything he said,” Norton correctly stated. Whereas Ali was very much able to get under the skin of a Joe Frazier or a George Foreman, Norton was way too smart to bite and use up precious energy whilst doing so.
The two met again, six months later (a rapid return considering the jaw injury) and Norton pushed Ali to the absolute limit a second time. Ali, his career and any chance of a shot at the title on the line, scraped by with a split decision, winning over 12-rounds to gain revenge. This loss was the only one a retired Norton would later say he agreed with when it came to his three encounters with Ali. Ali would indeed go on to challenge Foreman, shocking the world with a KO win he never came close to scoring against Norton in two nip and tuck fights. This great Ali win came, of course, after Foreman had bludgeoned Norton to a crushing 2nd-round defeat in a title defence that came about six months after Ken’s second fight with Ali. Talk about styles making fights. Never in the history of the heavyweight division was this more apparent. Ali could never floor Norton, not even if they had had 50 bouts, yet Norton could never stand up to the power of Foreman the way Ali did.
Norton bounced back from the thrashing “Big” George administered in Caracas and, after winning seven fights on the bounce (including a good win over Jerry Quarry) he got his third and final chance at Ali; this time with the crown at stake. What happened at Yankee Stadium in September of 1976 still causes huge debate. There were, and are, plenty of fans and experts who claim Ali had no right at all to walk away with his belt intact after the 15 tough, “awkward” and tiring rounds he experienced at the hands of Norton almost 40 years ago.
Some Ali worshipers argued, and argue, how the great man had done enough to have won the fight – interestingly scored as a unanimous decision in Ali’s favour, the widest win he ever scored over Norton – but Norton was inconsolable, breaking down and crying in the ring after the decision was announced. It might have been Norton’s own fault, or the fault of his corner, as he took the final round off as per instructed, so sure were his team that he had the fight won and didn’t need to take any chances (this last-round advice being right up there with the unfathomable advice Meldrick Taylor was given before going out for the 12th-round of his savage war with Julio Cesar Chavez, when despite being miles ahead, Taylor was instructed to fight hard to win the final three minutes).
Ali won by a single point on the cards of two judges, and by two points on the card handed in by the referee. Had Norton gone all out in the 15th and won it on those two cards (and he later said he was not at all tired at that stage of the fight) the title would have changed hands. Norton later said he never again trusted boxing judges.
Ali can today sit at home and recall the fights he had with the single most “awkward,” frustrating and demanding opponent of his entire career. Ali and Norton had respect and admiration for one another (Ali being one of the first people to visit Kenny while he was recovering in hospital from the car smash) and if Ali were to admit the truth today, he would have to acknowledge how “The Jaw Breaker” defeated the “Draft Dodger” three out of three.