Sept. 28, 1976: Ali vs Norton III

In a time of constant media exposure and fifteen second attention spans, it is almost impossible to fully appreciate the larger-than-life fame and popularity of Muhammad Ali in the 1970s. The term “living legend” has become a meaningless cliché, but after stunning the world by dethroning George Foreman in 1974, Ali really did become the stuff of legend and myth, was truly larger than life.

Having stood up to the might of the U.S. government, he had, in the end, prevailed, a most improbable outcome. He had been stripped of the world heavyweight title and the right to compete for over three years after refusing to be drafted into the military, but then, to the astonishment of all, he regained the championship by defeating the most awe-inspiring heavyweight puncher since Joe Louis. Justice and vindication, not to mention political significance, attached itself to Ali’s resurgence, making it all bigger than sports and Ali, who had already become bigger than boxing prior to his stand against the Vietnam War, assumed the proportions of a demigod. The adulation spanned the globe and the world could not get enough of him.

muhammad-ali-the-greatest
Books, movies, comics: Ali was a global mega-star.

“The Greatest” talked frequently about retirement in those days, but fame can be a prison. There were far too many people wanting to see the next Muhammad Ali fight and far too much money at stake for everyone involved. For many, Ali was a hero and an inspiration, but for the promoters, his manager, the television networks, his huge entourage, the media, and the sport of boxing itself, he was a lifeline, a living conduit for cold, hard cash. Books, television specials, comics, posters, games, toys, movies — Muhammad Ali was everywhere. Retirement? Forget it. Not just the most famous athlete in the world, but now one of the most famous people to ever walk the earth, Ali was, simply put, too successful for his own good.

Ali was so big he got equal billing with Superman.

Of course the dangerous fact overlooked at the time was that Muhammad Ali happened to preside over the most competitive heavyweight division in history. Neither before nor since have there been so many big, powerful, gifted boxers north of two hundred pounds. And while on occasion Ali enjoyed an easy outing against the likes of Richard Dunn or Jean-Pierre Coopman, the expectation remained that a true champion must defend his title against the very best. And in the 1970’s that meant truly formidable battlers such as Joe Frazier, Ron Lyle, Joe Bugner and Earnie Shavers. And one Ken Norton.

Ali vs Norton
Ali and Norton hype the big rubber match.

By 1976, Ali and Norton were old rivals, having split two close battles back in 1973. The first match in San Diego will always be remembered as “The Battle of Broken Jaw.” Ali, on the comeback trail after his defeat to Joe Frazier, entered the ring in something less than prime condition and paid the price when Norton, then a little-known contender, not only scored the upset victory, but sent Ali to the hospital with a fractured mandible.

The former champion insisted on an immediate rematch and whipped himself into perhaps the best condition of his career, but Ali vs Norton II was another tough, close struggle, Ali winning by split decision, but Norton’s cross-armed defense, powerful jab and counter-punching skills giving “The Greatest” all kinds of trouble. While the narrow victory paved the way for Ali’s rematch win against Frazier and then his joyous coronation in Africa, there was a sense that unfinished business existed between the two. After Muhammad outlasted “Smokin’ Joe” in the grueling “Thrilla In Manila,” an Ali vs Norton rubber match became the biggest fight in boxing.

Ali vs Norton
Ali and his crew try to intimidate Norton before the fight.

Despite a crushing knockout loss to Foreman in 1974, Norton had maintained his high standing with stoppage wins over Ron Stander and Jerry Quarry. Ali vs Norton III to decide once and for all who was the better man became a huge attraction, resulting in the biggest payday in boxing history up to that point, six million dollars for Ali. While the live gate was inhibited by a New York City police strike and the chaos which that unleashed, millions around the world watched the bout on closed circuit television.

Ali vs Norton

And more than four decades later, boxing fans still argue about this fight and the judges’ decision. A myth has accrued over the years that Norton was the victim of an obvious robbery, that Ali in no way deserved the razor-close though unanimous decision he received after fifteen rounds. But in truth, just like their first two meetings, Ali vs Norton III was highly competitive, at times difficult to score, and while Norton may have got the better of it by a shade, no blatant larceny took place. In the history of controversial heavyweight decisions, this was less Louis vs Walcott or Foreman vs Briggs, and more say Holmes vs Witherspoon or Jimmy Ellis vs Floyd Patterson.

Ali vs Norton

And the fact remains that in a close fight, and especially against a hugely popular champion, nothing can be taken for granted. Before the final round Norton’s corner made the fatal error of telling their fighter that the decision was in the bag. Just play it safe, they instructed him, and make sure Ali doesn’t get lucky in the last three minutes. By contrast, the desperate champion fought round fifteen like his life depended on it, somehow summoning the strength and energy to dominate its first two minutes as the crowd chanted “Ali! Ali! Ali”,  and thus saving his title by the slimmest of margins. Had Norton thrown caution to the winds and taken that final round, he would have won by split decision.

Ali vs Norton

But while Ali had succeeded in eking out a very close points verdict, he had done so on little more than guts and guile. Anyone watching with a critical eye had to see he was at the end of the road. Less than two years before he had looked magnificent against Foreman, but now his timing seemed off, his legs sluggish, his chin more vulnerable than ever. The undeniable truth was that Ali’s brutal war with Joe Frazier the year before had extinguished his prime. And his hectic schedule of public events and exhibition fights—not to mention his farcical battle with Antonio Inoki which had put him in the hospital with serious leg injuries three months before—was also taking a toll.

Ali vs Norton

If ever there was a time for Muhammad Ali to acknowledge that he was human like the rest of us and walk away from the fight game to avoid the beatings and blows that lay ahead, it was after that third tough battle with Norton. According to those closest to him, the legendary champion knew it as well as anyone. But how could he stop? Not only thousands of fans in Yankee Stadium, but the whole world was chanting “Ali! Ali! Ali!” And while he had the strength and courage to defeat almost any man in the ring, sadly, Muhammad Ali lacked the will to resist the allure of his own legend.

— Michael Carbert

20 thoughts on “Sept. 28, 1976: Ali vs Norton III

  • February 20, 2016 at 1:36 pm
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    The writer here is accurate. While the title was Norton’s for the taking, he didn’t have the initiative and killer instinct to go after Ali in that crucial 15th round. He stupidly played it safe, and paid for it. Ali didn’t beat him; Norton beat himself. And while I’ve always hated Ali, he always had the desire of a champion.

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    • June 11, 2020 at 10:22 am
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      I am, and always have been, a great Ali fan and I believe that at his best, his lighting speed and cast iron jaw make him the No 1 heavyweight ever. Even when he slowed down, he was still far too good for most. However, by the time the third Norton fight came along he was well past his best. It was a very close fight and certainly not a case of Norton being robbed. I have watched it time and time again and the truth is I am still not convinced either way so in my opinion the fairest result would have been a draw. Ali certainly did not deserve to lose his title. Maximum respect to both. A great era for heavyweight boxing.

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    • November 21, 2020 at 1:23 pm
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      Ali clearly lost nine rounds through the 14th. Round 15 shouldn’t have mattered. But Ali had the boxing world by the testicles, that’s why they always prolonged his legacy. He couldn’t beat Norton. They gave Spinks a decision because they knew Ali would beat him in a rematch, when he was in shape, and that would make a good story.

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    • June 12, 2021 at 10:50 am
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      I don’t know what fight some people are watching. Norton clearly beat Ali. If it was at all close, and it really wasn’t, do you think Norton’s corner would have told him to play it safe in round 15? The punch stats are available for this fight, just check it out. And check out the fighters’ reactions, and that of their corners at the final bell.

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  • September 29, 2016 at 11:48 am
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    Definitely a close fight, I always thought Norton won, but I’ll have to go back and watch it again (I don’t really need a reason, but this time I have one).

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    • December 10, 2016 at 1:29 am
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      I had the same curiosity and decided to watch it and score it myself. I was surprised to conclude an Ali victory, 145-143 using the 10 point system. It was very close and I scored three rounds even, but my decision was similar to the official verdict. Have you watched it again?

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  • October 6, 2016 at 7:00 am
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    I watched this a few months ago and actually had Ali winning by 2-3 rounds. Although there were a number of close rounds, I preferred Ali’s work, his ring generalship and cleaner blows.

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  • October 15, 2016 at 9:35 am
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    Get real, he kept fighting because he was addicted to having lots of money.
    Ali deserved the decision, landed the majority of clean and damaging punches.

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  • November 18, 2016 at 5:51 pm
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    Norton had that goofy looking somewhat passive style of fighting…tough to take the title off the champ when you fight that way

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  • August 21, 2018 at 11:33 pm
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    I gave it 7-6-2 Norton. But it was really close, and I don’t blame anyone who gave the fight to Ali. Anyway a challenger must win by a wider margin to walk home withthe belt. So yes, I do think Norton won that night, yet I justify the decision, though a draw would have satisfied me better.

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  • April 28, 2019 at 7:33 am
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    Norton won the fight. Ali’s corner at the end of the fight made that obvious.

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  • June 5, 2019 at 6:10 pm
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    Norton clearly won. Just watch the fight.

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  • September 15, 2019 at 11:20 pm
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    Most people clearly don’t know how to score a fight. Norton was the aggressor but not always the EFFECTIVE AGGRESSOR. Also, he landed many punches on Ali’s arms and shoulders. Most people don’t seem to know that these punches don’t count in the scoring! At the post-fight press conference the next day, Norton was wearing dark glasses in a pathetic attempt to hide the bruises. Ali landed numerous blows to Norton’s head and face. Norton landed some good body punches but not enough, especially in the 15th round. The referee, Arthur Mercante, Sr. was also one of the judges. He was right there in the middle of the action, in the best position to judge what was going on. IMO he was the greatest referee/judge of all time.

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    • April 11, 2020 at 4:01 am
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      You MUST be a know-it-all liberal.

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    • May 10, 2020 at 6:18 am
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      The truth is that Norton won the fight. I’ve scored this fight eight times and Ali lost. His corner after the match showed that.

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  • September 2, 2020 at 11:36 am
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    Kenneth L. Miller – I thought punches to the arms and shoulders did score points? Maybe not. I’ve all ways been an Ali fan. The color commentator of the fight, it wasn’t Howard Cosell, thought Norton beat Ali. After the fight Norton’s corner was delirious because Norton just beat Ali! Ali looked like a guy that just lost a fight and he knew it. He looked so morose. As much as I like Ali I think he lost the fight. Ali always seemed to have the refs on his side. They let him get away with holding against Foreman, for example.

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  • December 1, 2020 at 3:39 pm
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    I’ve seen all three fights and I can only say the first was conclusive. The third fight was confusing to me because the judges had to have scored it heavily based on ring generalship. Norton was the aggressor but Ali was the one dictating the pace. Norton threw better power shots and Ali landed more effectively with the jab. I’d say Norton was the more effective because Ken Norton is the most difficult boxer to read. Joe Frazier had broken rhythm but Norton was on another level. I had the exact problem when I saw the fight with Holmes in that no matter how often I try to study Norton, he does the exact opposite of what you expect. His unpredictable style is why I can never tell definitively who actually won. If I had to pick I’d choose Norton, but that’s just my opinion.

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    • September 29, 2021 at 6:35 am
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      7 rounds Ali 6 rounds Norton and 2 even. Norton won his rounds bigger and more clearly but definitely Ali won more rounds

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  • May 22, 2022 at 12:19 am
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    I felt Norton won the fight clearly and not even controversially. He was the effective aggressor, and landed harder, cleaner blows. Ali, had some good moments, and several rounds were close. But I thought Norton won more rounds… and the rounds he won were much more convincing. Norton certainly thought he won. Ali left in a hurry. Ali would later say something he almost never says (Ali felt Norton won the fight at Yankee stadium, but the judges gave it to him and he was grateful for that). During that time period, many broadcasters had this sort of “Ali mania”. Any round remotely close, was given to Ali. Ali often barely grazed opponents with some of his jabs, yet the commentators were in love with this guy. I also saw many fighters batter Ali against the ropes, and commentators would say that “most of those punches missed or were blocked”…. It was as if many commentators saw the myth they created and wanted to see. I will say that they had 3 great fights, and I believe the first 2 had the correct man winning. I don’t feel the first fight was as close as we were lead to believe. I also thought Ali, clearly won the second. This is the only fight I felt the better man was not given his due! ( I realize not all judges see things the same, and we all have our bias’s. I personally feel that if there are enough “close” rounds, it’s more fair to divide them up closely, than to split hairs and give them all to one fighter… but not everyone thinks as I do). I solute both of these fighters for the many great performances and thrills they gave us throughout there fighting careers.

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