There are fights, there are big fights and then there are those special moments in the ring when there is much promise in the air, when something dramatic and chillingly memorable is about to imprint itself on our minds. The Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton title fight is not one of those moments. This may be a risky assumption, doubly so when you add that Ali will stop Norton inside seven rounds in Yankee Stadium next week in the first heavyweight bout to be held outdoors in New York in 17 years. On paper, it rates the venue. But after you blow away all the hype, the screwy logic and the urgent anticipation of Ali haters who breathe heavily whenever he is faced by anyone who, anatomically, is in one huge, beautiful piece, only this remains: curiosity.
The fight lacks the stuff of true theater. There is no Floyd Patterson wounded and lost, seeking redemption against the unsoulful and malevolent Sonny Liston. There is no Cassius Clay, hysterical on the eve of the first Liston fight in Miami Beach. This is not the Frazier-Ali series, with all its coiling virulence, bitter feelings and political and sociological undertones. No. this is merely an oldtime big fight, the kind that occurred often when the fight world was free of words like psyching and TV satellites and was genuinely shocked if a fighter did more than grunt.
Such a fight calls for a certain ritual: a long dinner, verbal excursions into boxiana and a good slow-burning cigar. The procedure reassures one of his civility before so primitive a rite as a heavyweight title fight. "Ordinarily." says Al Braverman, the 300-pound manager of heavyweights Dino Dennis and Chuck Wepner, "I'd recommend something light...like fish followed by a bottle of Chateau Latour '58. But with this one you can go heavy, something Italian or German, with no limit to the wine or beer. The digestion won't be bothered by this fight. There's nothing personal here. It's just a good fight. Somewhere to go after dinner." Usually a marksman at fight analysis, Braverman is certain "Ali cannot 'lose." His opinion, though, is slightly tainted; he is allied with Don King, the promoter who was dropped by Herbert Muhammad, Ali's manager, and "crossed by Norton." Norton alleged in a court case brought by King involving breach of contract that King had tried to block the promotion of this fight.
Madison Square Garden and the inexorable Bob Arum are the co-promoters of the bout, only the second title match in New York in over five years. It is a compatible alliance, combining the institution that ravaged the sport in New York by abusing young talent through its calloused attitude, with the lawyer Arum, who once admitted he could not care less about boxing; to him, it is a business—like underwear on Seventh Avenue. This is a tough tandem, resolute in its desire to skim the last of the cream from the game, although Arum does say that this fight is his first step in putting boxing back upright in the Garden. The Ali-Norton promotion jumped off the blocks superbly, selling $1 million worth of tickets soon after the fight was announced back in May.
September 26, 1976
Since then, ticket sales have been sluggish, closed-circuit theater bids not overwhelming, and there seems to be an undercurrent of concern, if not panic, among the promoters. In seclusion in Show Low, Ariz., Ali (the master of flak and salesmanship) was pressed hard to train in the New York area instead of appearing only several days before the fight. Was the Garden running scared? If so, one could hardly blame it. The 65,000 capacity of Yankee Stadium would look like a wasteland with even a good fight crowd, and Norton was guaranteed $1.1 million, Ali $6 million.
The crowd figures to be about 30,000 (tickets are scaled at $200, $150, $100, on down), but what about those crucial theater seats? On the negative side, the fight seems to lack character, meaning that Norton is not clearly identifiable to the general public (which determines theater receipts); meaning also that there is no genuine conflict of character or philosophy between Norton and Ali to stir the fan. In its favor, this can be said: it is a splendid "talking" fight, one of those events that can be chewed on endlessly, one of those "armchairers" that open up many avenues of debate. Like these: What about that one point that separates Ali and Norton after two previous meetings? And Ali's broken jaw in the first fight? And the closeness of the second fight? Why did Norton look so desperate against Ron Stander, the heavy bag? Why did he look so lethargic against broken-down Larry Middleton? In the end, is Norton just a journeyman who got lucky? Did Ali's shabby defense against Jimmy Young reflect more than just poor condition?
In his camp at Grossinger's in the Catskills, Norton likes to talk about his two fights with Ali, the first in March 1973 the second five months later. He likes to stress how he broke Ali's jaw in the first one, and tries to build a case for why he should have won the second, which he lost by a point. The films do not agree with him. He started slowly, caught fire in the middle, and might have won it had he not been so passive in the last round. He did nothing in this round; his corner had miscalculated the scoring, figuring he had a lot of lead to spare. "Ali stole that round with showmanship," says Norton's manager, Bob Biron. "That was the difference." Biron also believes that Norton was trained too finely, that he was too light at 205 and could not reach back for strength when he needed it.
Norton, at 31, will be about 212 for Ali this time under a different trainer, Bill Slayton, once a semi-pro linebacker. Asked where he would use the 6'3" Norton (once a very good wingback) on a football team, Slayton said, "I'd make him a flanker. He's got great speed. He doesn't like to block or hit. You can see that." Slayton hints that Norton will use his jab a lot more and that there will be a solution—not a pretty one—if Ali tries to hold his fighter by the back of his head. "Ali doesn't like a jab, never has," says Slayton. "He gets worried about his face. I hope Ken can cut him early, get him thinkin' about his face." Slayton adds that the Stander and Middleton fights were tune-ups, and that they were not the type of opponents that bring out the best in Norton. "He either respects a guy or under-respects him," Slayton says. "It's a mental thing he's got. It's all mental with him in the ring."
Ali trains a few miles away at the Concord Hotel. His camp is a bit more tranquil than usual. Because he was annoyed with the crowd around him in his camp in Michigan, Ali did his preliminary work in the vast desert quiet of Show Low, with only a few aides and his latest health guru, the comedian Dick Gregory, on hand. This atmosphere seems to have been brought from Show' Low to the Concord. Gregory has set up a special health room for Ali, with $600 blenders, baskets of carrots and fruit and every vitamin and mystical concoction known to man. "Hurry up! Hurry!" Gregory yells to the man at the blender. "The champ's ready for his carrot juice."
Ali does not say much about the two fights with Norton, but the party line goes like this: The first fight can be dismissed because, next to his attitude toward Jimmy Young and his preparation for that match, Ali has never been more contemptuous of an opponent or in worse condition; even on the morning before the fight he was romantically distracted. Erase also the second bout. Ali prepared well for this one: running hard, chopping down trees, drawing his strength from them, he said. The trouble was that he could not punch, could not keep Norton off because of his chronically sore hands, and besides he was worried about his jaw—whether it would hold up or not. "I boxed the last eight rounds of that fight with open gloves," says Ali. "Now my hands are like steel. I'm gonna blow him outta there! Can't have a man bein' champion who walks 'round like he did in that movie." He was alluding to Norton's highly sexual role in the plantation film called Drum.
Ali can't, or doesn't seem to want to, find a personal hook on which to hang Norton. "I wanna leave him be," he says. "He don't arouse me." Candidly, there is not much to say about Norton, even for Ali, who seldom lets facts get in the way of a good line. On the surface Norton appears to be a solid, playful man, given to sudden practical jokes and being careful about his privacy, a man who would never tolerate the chaos that encircles Ali. "Ken doesn't let friends pick him," says Biron. "He picks them. He has very few friends." Norton likes fast cars, lives with a "charming lady" who has recently given birth to a girl (two days before Ali became a father again).
Yet there seems to be a murkier tide running through the Norton persona. "There's something soft, unhostile about Ken," says an acquaintance. "It's hard to think of him as a fighter." Slayton, remember, sees him as a flanker and a person of the mind, always the mind above all. Biron concedes that Norton needs careful mental preparation to be ready for a fight, needs to have his emotions checked and examined almost daily. Look around his room at Grossinger's and you see many books on fear and success and sports psyching and motivation and self-improvement. The signs over his doorway and on the walls read I WILL BEAT ALI! Look at his habits. Everything begins from the left side. First he puts on his left sock, then his left shoe; the left hand is taped first, and the left glove put on before the right. And Norton has a horror of seeing a black cat when he is doing roadwork.
He is a spooky heavyweight, a fighter who can be likened to a horse that is thrown off stride by shadows. Put simply, the inside opinion is that Norton can be mugged mentally, might even do it to himself without provocation. He is timid, it is said, and is there a better example of the fear factor than Norton's title fight with George Foreman in Caracas? To all who were there, the picture remains: the immense Foreman glaring at a nearly trembling Norton, who would be knocked out quickly in the second round. Allow for some exaggeration by most witnesses, but there is no doubt something was wrong with him. "I would have thought he was afraid," says Biron, "had I not been there. But I was and I know what happened."
The Foreman fight, says Biron, was madness. "Foreman's people brought their own referee," he says. "There were threats on Norton's life. An Interpol man slept on the floor of his room, and guards with submachine guns surrounded his dinner table each night. On top of this, there were severe tax problems with the government, which went back on its tax word. There was Foreman trying to hold the promotion up for more money right before the fight, yelling about a bad knee, limping into the hospital on one leg. It was a brawl on several fronts, and I didn't know there was going to be a fight an hour before it went off. At that point Norton was still sitting in his hotel room. Then I finally called, and he rushed to the arena. By this time Ken had come apart mentally. He wasn't there. His eyes were glazed. He would have walked through a wall and not have known it. The confusion had disturbed him severely. I shouldn't have let him go on."
Believable, yes, but in the end Norton provides us with no serious reason why he should take the title from the most creative, the most gifted heavyweight in history. Can be outbox Ali? Can he out-punch Ali? Is he stronger than Ali? Is he smarter than Ali? Will he be in better condition? The answer to all of these questions is an unarguable no. What does Norton have to offer? He works well up close, can be punishing to the body; a steady and fierce campaign (but enervating because of all the heavy fire one must take) to Ali's body brings results. Norton has an odd style: he is sort of like a big cork in a normal sea, bobbing just enough to be out of focus. In the past Ali has found him difficult to time.
Ali knows this of Norton; he knows he drops his right hand whenever he throws a left hook; he knows Norton's punches come in wide amateurish arcs; he knows Norton will be especially attentive to Ali's right hand, which is better than ever. Ali seems to think Norton will show his hand early, try not to allow Ali to build a big margin toward a decision. "It could be that the early rounds might be some of the best ever seen," says Biron. "Ken knows he has to take that title from Ali. Nobody is going to take a title from Muhammad Ali if it is anywhere close. He is boxing."
If Norton's turn of mind, his emotional poise and interesting but limited skills are questionable, there is also this point about Ali: the degenerative process of age. Like a sudden cool wind on a hot night, age can come upon a fighter. The muscles and bones ache more, the hurt stays longer, the will often lacks the edge of a sword. The legs go first, and so it has been with Ali; he no longer has speed, the ability to move swiftly backward, and it is obvious he takes more punches than he ever has. Instead, he has become more cunning, a plotter and schemer who has bent his attack to conform to his residual skills. In some ways he is a better fighter than before, standing flat-footed in the middle of the ring, finessing from side to side and punching with cruelty. What about those reflexes that trigger combinations, the vital sign that tells what is left in a fighter? Who can guess when they will leave a profligate like Ali? You can whip a 34-year-old body into shape only so many times. If he is intact look for the Guns of September on this night, with most of the shells landing on Norton, thus removing all curiosity, sending Norton back to a career in movies, and leaving Muhammad Ali only one fight away—Foreman—from becoming a full-time soul catcher as evangelist to the world.