The question that was supposed to be answered in the Los Angeles Forum last Monday night was whether Muhammad Ali has any reasonable hope of becoming heavyweight champion of the world again. But after 12 of the toughest rounds Ali has ever fought, the question rates up there with the continuing speculations of our time. One thing that was proved for sure is that if Ali still wants to be champion he had better hope Ken Norton falls off a motorcycle or takes up Hare Krishna.
Ali came out of the ring with a damaged right hand and a split decision over Norton, the ex-Marine who had beaten him and broken his jaw last March. Ali pronounced himself immensely tired, and Norton, who retreated to a private room to vent his frustration at the decision, declared he had been the victim of a poor call. Out there yet awaiting the answer to Ali's remaining abilities are George Foreman, the champion, and Joe Frazier, who used to be the champion. Both of them have multimillion dollar fights pending with Ali.
A couple of days before the fight Ali was pondering his career with a kind of amused detachment, as if it were somebody else he was thinking about. He was getting ready to move out of his hotel suite and into the home of his friend Howard Bingham, a photographer, explaining this would enable him to eat "real food" like okra, spinach and corn on the cob instead of "that other kind of food," which apparently is what he gets in hotels.
With his face still unmarked and his body hardened by the most strenuous training he has done in years, Ali looked more like the boy who won the Olympic championship 13 years ago than the rather flabby 31-year-old man who unexpectedly lost to Norton in their first fight. Until then Norton had been so lightly regarded that his previous fight had earned him $300 before a crowd of 700 people in the town he calls home, San Diego.
"Yes, yes, they are all talking about Muhammad Ali like it's his life or death on the line," Ali said. "There is a very great deal of interest in Muhammad Ali. Is he through, or is he not? Is he still the fastest and most beautiful man in the world, or is he growing old and slow? Well, it shows you what they think of Ali that this question would come up."
Ali smiled. It pleased him to consider that just about everybody in the world except maybe a few Mongolians and an occasional penguin herder would be concerned with the fate of Muhammad Ali on Monday night. "They never talked about Floyd Patterson like this," he said. "Old Floyd's been whipped 99 times, and he's still in business. Joe Frazier got slaughtered, and he's fighting. But Muhammad Ali is so great that people don't think he should lose even when his jaw is broke, his ankle is twisted and his hand is hurt, like what was wrong when he fought Norton last time. What happened is Muhammad Ali ate a lot of ice cream and cake, he didn't do his running, he didn't punch the heavy bag. And still he almost won. If he hadn't been clowning around with his mouth open and got hisself hit with an uppercut, he would have beaten Norton that first time. I'm ashamed Ali let himself get into such shape. He won't do it again. Muhammad Ali chuckles in the face of catastrophe."
Ali has been known for emotions far more outsized than chuckling. But the broken jaw took a lot of the joy away and replaced it with chagrin. Bundini Brown, Ali's assistant trainer who works on the psyche as much as on the body, constantly preached the power of transcendence. "To come back and overcome what has defeated you is the strongest magic in the world," Bundini would tell Ali.
Ali listened to reports that Norton had said he was trash and was suffering from creeping senility—which Norton, of course, had not said, at least not within public hearing—and Ali scowled and said, "I took a nobody and created a monster. I put him on The Dating Game. I gave him glory. Now I have to punish him bad."
And there did seem to be a certain grim quality to Ali's performance in the days before the bout. "He's never concentrated this hard on a fight, not even for the first one with Sonny Liston," said Harold Conrad, a boxing promoter who has known Ali for years. Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, said they had worked so hard that Dundee himself had lost 10 pounds.
"I hope the way Ali looks is more than merely cosmetic," said his physician, Dr. Ferd Pacheco, as the anxious night approached.
Ali had been warned he would not have to search for Norton in the ring. The young jewelry designer and music lover with the marvelously muscular body had the idea from their first meeting that Ali could not hurt him, and so would stay in Ali's face all night. That was clearly Norton's approach. For most of the fight it was Norton attacking and Ali dancing and jabbing to show that he still had his famous legs.
Ali won the first half of the fight. By the middle Norton's youth and strength began to flourish. By the 12th round Norton had caught up, and the match looked so even that Ali decided he had to gamble. He met Norton in the middle of the ring with combinations of punches and a show of determination that made the younger man stop his steady advancing. Ali stood in and fought, and at the bell it was still undecided whether he had won. Referee Dick Young's vote carried it for him.
Ali himself was so unsettled that seconds after the bell he took a poke at Bundini, who turned around and swung at Bingham. Bob Aram, Ali's lawyer, might have wanted to swing at all three of them. He had in his pocket a $10 million offer from a London promoter for a fight with Foreman and another offer for a rematch with Frazier in December. Now both fights were endangered. The offers hung on Ali beating Norton, which he did—but perhaps not convincingly enough.