One Punch: How Ken Norton Became a Boxing Legend in a Single Night

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One Punch: How Ken Norton Became a Boxing Legend in a Single Night
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali's cornerman, Wali Muhammad, didn't see the punch that broke the former champion's jaw during his March 1, 1973, fight with Ken Norton. Nobody did. Watching tape of the fight, there is no decisive blow, no jaw-dropping moment to rewind and replay frame by frame. 

But though he didn't see the blow, there was no denying the blood.

Wali had lived a full life, improbably an assistant to both Sugar Ray Robinson and Malcolm X before joining Ali's camp in 1965, and he had seen a lot of things—but never anything quite like this.

"I was taking out the mouthpiece and there was more and more blood on it," he told Ali's biographer Thomas Hauser in Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.

"My bucket with the water and ice in it became red. In every other fight, between rounds, I’d take the mouthpiece out and put it in the bucket and there was just slobber on it. But here, after each round, I had to shake the mouthpiece to get all the blood out of it into the water.”

Norton, who died Wednesday at age 70, was the unheralded challenger. A Joe Frazier sparring partner who had never beaten a top-10 opponent, he was supposed to be a mere tune-up fight.

Derisively called "Ken Somebody" by Sports Illustrated and a "tailor-made" fall guy by legendary announcer Howard Cosell, Norton was a 5-1 stepping stone, just another opponent to kill time, while Ali worked out a bout with champion George Foreman. 

He wasn't expected to put up a fight. Despite standing 6'3" and possessing the sculpted muscles normally only seen in marble, the former Marine was considered an easy target. And yet, by the sixth round, it was clear: Norton wasn't just winning, but he didn't even know he was supposed to be intimidated by the great Ali.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Ken Norton in 2011.

As the fight progressed, Wali Muhammad wasn't the only one seeing red. Ali's lawyer, now-legendary promoter Bob Arum, was negotiating to fight Foreman for a prize between $6-10 million. Norton, round after miserable round, was ruining things.

In the stands, Frazier watched the fight with glee he couldn't disguise. He had beaten Ali to claim the undisputed world championship before Foreman took it from him in turn, but bad blood lingered.

Ali had taken Norton lightly, even showing up at a training session and declaring his opponent an "amateur." Frazier had sparred hard rounds with Norton and knew otherwise. Though an Ali loss could have cost him millions, he had a smile on his face as Norton, improbably, shocked the world.

Inspired by a hypnotist and a self-help book entitled Think and Grow Rich, Norton possessed an unusual confidence and equally unusual technique. As the fight wore on, it became clear Ali wasn't prepared for it.

"He had that awkward style, where he'd shoot his jab up from the waist, and it was very unusual," Ali's former business manager, Gene Kilroy, told Yahoo! Sports. "Most guys throw the jab from the shoulder, and that always gave Ali trouble."

While Sports Illustrated thought Norton's style crude, but vibrant, Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, knew there was a method to his madness. "With that lurching, herky-jerky, splay-footed movement of his, you just couldn't time him," he told ESPN.

The Ali vs. Norton Trilogy
Date Location Result Attendance
March 31, 1973 San Diego, Calif. Norton via split decision 11,884
Sept. 10, 1973 Inglewood, Calif. Ali via split decision 12,100
Sept. 28, 1976 New York, N.Y. Ali via unanimous decision 19,000

boxrec

For much of the fight, Ali didn't even try, concerned more with avoiding the fight than throwing many punches of his own. With his jaw in shambles and the fight slipping away, it was Norton, not Ali, who began to talk.

"You're nothing," he told the former champion as a right hand bounced off Ali's skull. Ali, never one to keep his thoughts to himself, remained silent. 

"He didn't have a punch at all," Norton told the press after the fight, taking two of three judge's scorecards and announcing himself as an immediate player in the heavyweight division after years on the outside looking in.

Before the Ali bout, Norton's biggest payday had been a paltry $8,000. In his previous fight, he had made just $300. With the win over Ali, that was all about to change.

However, not everyone was impressed. Writing in The New York Times, sports columnist of record Red Smith thought Ali was all but done:

Ali was overweight at 221 pounds and probably overconfident, though with an ego the size of his it is hard to gauge complacency. It was a measure of Ali's deterioration that Norton didn't look especially impressive whipping him, didn't have to.

Cosell echoed those sentiments and called for Ali's retirement. Ali, who had entered the ring in a rhinestone-encrusted white robe given to him by Elvis Presley, the future bright, left with his career very much in question.

"Funny, the jaw didn't hurt so much in the fight," Ali later told Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule. "Under all the heat and the excitement, you don't feel it. Like a man in a street fight. He get cut in the stomach, fights on with his guts hangin' out and don't feel nothin' until he gets to the hospital."

His surgeon recalled things differently. After wiring Ali's jaw shut, Dr. Gary Manchester told the media, "It was a very bad break. The bone which was broken had three or four jagged edges. The edges kept poking into his mouth. He had so much pain during the fight that he's totally exhausted right now."

Norton's trainer, Eddie Futch, a man who previously led Frazier to a win over the seemingly unbeatable Ali, thought he had the legend's number.

"He has serious deficiencies which his speed enables him to overcome, like a pretty girl being able to overcome the fact she's not smart," Futch told Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray. "He never learned to respect his trade because he never had to. When he loses his speed even journeyman fighters will beat him."

Those words would prove prescient at the end of Ali's career, but not soon enough to help Norton—or Frazier. Ali would go on to win two fights from each man, ending his career as the greatest of all time.

But though he lost two in a row to Ali, Norton proved his win was no fluke. Ali had to work to earn it.

"Never trained more than three weeks for Liston, never trained more than three weeks for Frazier," Ali told Sports Illustrated's Mark Kram before his second bout with Norton. "Been up here now 14 weeks."

When the fight, held in Inglewood just six months later, was over, Ali left his customary trash talk behind, at least for an honest moment with Philadelphia Daily News reporter Tom Cushman.

“Ken Norton is the best man I’ve ever fought," Ali said. "He is better than Joe Frazier, Jerry Quarry, Sonny Liston—any of them.”

Norton would go on to challenge George Foreman for the world championship in 1974, and his 1978 bout with Larry Holmes is widely considered one of the greatest heavyweight fights ever. But despite all his accomplishments, it was never better than that magical night he tussled with, and beat, the best in the world.

 

Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's Lead Combat Sports Writer and the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting.

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