It had been years since Muhammad Ali worked with such intensity and purpose, years since he had forced his body to undergo the torture necessary to reach supreme physical condition. It was 1973 and the former heavyweight champion’s entire career, not to mention his prospects for ever regaining the world title, was at stake.
At his rugged training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, Ali sought to whip his once Adonis-like physique back into top shape, determined as he was to make amends for what happened the previous March in San Diego, California. There, Ali’s career, up to this point a luminous monument to his extraordinary talent despite his loss to Joe Frazier, had suffered a huge setback. There he had sustained both a second defeat, this time to little-known contender Ken Norton, and a broken jaw. So shocking and disheartening was this setback that some speculated “The Greatest’s” long run at the top of the heavyweight division, a run interrupted only by his forced exile for refusing to join the war effort in Vietnam, may have come to an inglorious end.
But the former champion’s jaw had healed, and if Ali’s ego had yet to fully recover from the drubbing endured at the hands of the unheralded prospect with the body-builder physique, his determination and competitive spirit certainly had. He demanded an immediate rematch and then eschewed the groupies and adoring crowds, the fawning interviewers and star-struck admirers, and instead spent hour after lonely hour running in the early morning gloom on those quiet hills at Deer Lake. He surrendered himself to the painful ministrations of the silent Cuban, Luis Sarria, the man who put Ali through his agonizing routines on the rub-down table. He ran and sparred and chopped wood and pounded the heavy bag and ran some more and when Angelo Dundee pulled the satin robe from Ali’s shoulders in the ring on that September night at the Inglewood Forum, the crowd saw a sleek and confident Ali, ten pounds lighter than in San Diego, an Ali primed to avenge himself.
But two obstacles threatened the former champion on the path to redemption. One was Ken Norton himself, a boxer of talent and toughness who was not the least bit intimidated by “The Greatest,” who knew he had whipped him once and was certain he could do it again. The other opposing force was one we all confront: Father Time. For while Ali had paid the price in training, no fitness regimen could resurrect the reflexes, speed and stamina of his younger self. Sharp he was against Norton on this night, but not as sharp as he had been in 1966, while the ex-Marine, with his size, strength and underrated power, deserved to be regarded as one of the most daunting challenges Ali had ever faced.
Despite this, the early rounds testified to the former champion’s renewed dedication to serious training. Dancing swiftly as he snapped out a continuous volley of left jabs, Ali never stopped moving on those nimble feet. Norton doggedly pursued but was hard-pressed to even get into punching range and when he did Ali immediately stifled his attack with a vise-grip clinch. The first four rounds belonged to Ali and between each one he refused to sit on his stool, instead standing to receive the plaudits of Bundini and the advice of Dundee. And then, ten or fifteen seconds early, he turned and skipped to ring center, seemingly impatient for the bell to ring and for the match to resume, dancing and shuffling in place, as if to say to Norton, “See? Look at these strong legs and quick feet. I can dance all night. This time, I’m ready!”
And yet there was a fly in the ointment, a flaw in Ali’s fight thus far. For while he was dancing and controlling matters and winning the rounds, his punches were not connecting with force, at least not enough to earn the respect of Norton who kept boring in, showing no fear of Ali’s power. The time when Ali possessed the coordination to score powerful blows while simultaneously gliding over the surface of the canvas like Gretzky on ice was in the past. And while four rounds were in his pocket, it had to be demoralizing to know he had yet to land a damaging punch. Perhaps signaling the realization that this was going to be a more difficult ordeal than he had hoped, after round four, Ali sat down.
And, as if on cue, Norton came on in round five, cutting off the ring and finding the range for his own left jab, a jab not as quick as Ali’s but every bit as hard, maybe harder. He pounded Ali’s body with both hands, struck with two left hooks near the end of the round and at the bell shouted, “I own you!” as the former champion trudged back to his corner. Now Ali’s face bore a weary look. Instead of a glorious return to domination it was going to be a firefight, and a grueling one at that.
The fans at the Inglewood Forum and on closed-circuit television were already enjoying a very lively heavyweight bout, but round six saw the pace pick up even more as Norton closed the distance. Both men landed telling shots, Norton with the jab and left hook and Ali with a series of rights, and the intense action, reflecting a pace more appropriate for middleweights than heavyweights, had the crowd on its feet, roaring.
And there was no let-up as the match entered its second half, though Ali clearly wanted one. Circling the ring again and working to keep Norton on the end of his punches, he attempted to return to the more civil proceedings of the opening rounds, but his adversary would not cooperate. Now clearly out-jabbing Ali and seemingly growing stronger, Norton trapped his quarry in the corner and stunned him with a thudding uppercut. Opening up with both hands, he drove heavy shots to Ali’s body, then a right upstairs, a left hook and another uppercut and Muhammad, clearly hurt for the first time, desperately held on. The battle drifted back to ring center where the proud former champion scored with a series of sharp one-two’s, but Norton pressed and then struck with the heaviest blow of the entire fight, a thunderous right to the jaw that must have caused Ali to wonder if his once-fractured mandible might give way again. For the first time it appeared a shocking repeat win for Norton was more than a distinct possibility.
Astonishingly, Ali appeared undiminished in the eighth and he boxed with authority until the final minute when Norton stunned him with a perfectly timed counter left hook. In the ninth Ali’s legs appeared to be finally tiring and the final minute saw the heavyweights battle toe-to-toe, neither warrior having a decided edge. Both rounds were difficult to score and so was the tenth as Ali out-boxed his nemesis for the majority of the stanza but it was Norton connecting with the damaging blows near the end, including a left hook that violently snapped back Ali’s head. Then came the eleventh, Norton’s best round of the match. Clearly stronger now, he bulled his quarry into the ropes, viciously pounding Ali’s belly with both hands.
And so, as the bell rang to start the last round, there was the sense the decision could go either way. Ali vs Norton II would be decided by its final three minutes and here the extra roadwork the former champion did in Deer Lake paid huge dividends. For it was Ali who emerged from his corner with his fists churning, blasting Norton with a series of whip-like combinations, his right hand connecting flush and forcing Norton to take his first involuntary backward steps in the entire fight. And incredibly, after eleven torrid rounds, there was Ali up on his toes again, dancing and striking with clean jabs and follow-up rights. And even after absorbing four heavy left hooks, it was Ali who dazed Norton with a right and a pair of uppercuts before throwing a flurry at the bell. The last round was Ali’s and with it, the fight.
But by a veritable whisker. The final decision was split, one judge scoring for Norton, the other two for Ali. An unofficial poll of ringside journalists saw eight votes for Ali and six for Norton while several others scored it a draw. There was precious little separating the two men and even after the decision was announced and Ali’s hand was raised, the former champion appeared not at all satisfied. He accepted the congratulations of his admirers but made no effort to hide his disappointment. He had been taken to the brink and now knew that no matter how hard he pushed himself in training, the supreme edge of his game, that unique blend of elusiveness, speed and sharp punching, was unlikely to ever fully return.
Surrounded in the ring by his handlers and the press and praised for his win and for being in tremendous physical condition, Ali gave a rueful smile. “I’m in good condition, but I’m tireder than usual,” — and here he paused as if reluctant to admit a hard-learned lesson — “because of my age.” He added: “If I wasn’t in this shape, wasn’t no way I could’ve won.” And he went on to praise Norton as “the next best in the world after myself.” He would later say that, Joe Frazier aside, Norton was a better fighter than any he had faced before.
Such words helped ensure the narrow points loss diminished in no way Ken Norton’s standing as a new and potent force in the division and in fact his next match was for the heavyweight championship, a violent knockout defeat to George Foreman in Venezuela. Ali, realizing that he could no longer afford to take short cuts in training camp or indulge himself between fights, maintained his renewed commitment to conditioning in the months ahead, a dedication which enabled him to defeat Joe Frazier in their rematch at Madison Square Garden and then, in a great upset, to regain the heavyweight title from Foreman in the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle.” But neither triumph would have been possible had he not secured victory against Ken Norton in Inglewood, a fight which, all things considered, might well be regarded as Ali’s most desperate hour.
– Michael Carbert