For a fight that produced no knockdowns and not one drop of blood—although buckets of it had been promised—last Saturday night's clash between heavyweights Jimmy Young and Ken Norton fell somewhere between being a classic and a curiosity. What saved the show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas was 15 rounds of unremitting action, with each man alternately rising to or retreating from the occasion. And then, when it was all over, came the puzzling split decision. Puzzling not because it was unfair, but because for men who are paid to make a decision, two of the judges were hopelessly indecisive.
One, Raymond Baldeyrou, a Frenchman, voted for Norton but gave him only six rounds. He called six even. Another judge, Jim Rondeau of Seattle, also had Norton on top, but gave him seven rounds. He called five even. The third judge (in Nevada the referee doesn't get to vote) was Art Lurie of Las Vegas. He had the fight for Young, eight rounds to six, with but one even. Their combined arithmetic, or whatever mysterious form of mathematics they were using, gave Norton a clear edge with 19 out of a possible 45 rounds while Young had only 14. For what it was worth—which was absolutely nothing—Referee Carlos Padilla said, "If I had had a vote, I would have voted for Young."
With that sort of climax to an encounter that was supposed to decide who gets to fight Muhammad Ali for the title, it was not surprising that Jack Levin, one of Young's managers, had a few bitter words. "With all the talk around here all week about Blinky Palermo," he said, "I'm beginning to think that we would have won the fight if we were really connected to him."
The rumor had, indeed, spread around Las Vegas and other fight circles that Palermo, one of the underworld's bosses of boxing before his 12-year sabbatical in the Lewisburg, Pa. penitentiary, had moved in as the force behind Young and was responsible for his sudden rise to fame and fortune. All last week, Young and his managers, Levin, Ray Kelly and Bob Brown, had vigorously denied any connection to the onetime Philadelphia numbers racketeer.
November 14, 1977
Young certainly didn't have the winning number in Vegas. Under Saturday's 10-point-must system, a fighter who gets 10 points in a round wins it—unless the judge awards his opponent 10, too, which was so often the case at Caesars Palace. While rounds scored even are not a rarity, they seldom come in such clusters and usually are scored that way because both fighters are doing a whole lot of nothing. This wasn't the case on Saturday.
The sustained assault from Norton over the distance was hardly a surprise, although there were those who had guessed that he might try to offset Young's cute tactics with a more deliberate attack. But, big and powerful, Norton has always performed best against an opponent he knows can't hurt him, and in this case Young was made to order. When Young punches the heavy bag it has been known not to move.
Unlike Norton, Young is known for winning by surviving; by piling up points while in full retreat. He fights to confuse, not to destroy, leaving opponents awake while putting audiences to sleep. But not this time, he had promised.
"When the bell sounds for the first round you are going to see the Norton everyone expects," Young said. "But then I'm going to whack him up alongside the head. The minute he gets popped you'll see a change in him. The whole thing boils down to hitting him alongside the head; hitting him everywhere but on the soles of his feet. Then after I whack him—and keep on whacking him—you're going to see Norton for what he is: a bully who quits when someone fights back."
All week Young leveled the insults against his unruffled rival. "He's Mr. Hollywood with toilet paper skin. I'm going to cut that movie star. Every time I hit him I'm going to twist my gloves. Look at all that jewelry he wears. Who does he think he is, Sammy Davis Jr.? I'd like to get him in a back alley in Philly. He can't fight; he's nothing but an experienced amateur."
Norton heard it all, and mostly he coolly ignored it. Except the crack about his being an experienced amateur. That one stung. It also stung when Eddie Futch, Norton's former trainer, picked Young to win.
"Futch and that crack about being an amateur really got Norton motivated in camp," said hotel owner Bob Biron, Norton's manager. "The only time I've ever seen him work harder in camp was for an Ali fight. And for Bobick. Futch also said Bobick would win. Anything Futch says bothers Ken; they used to be very close. If I could pay Futch $100,000 to pick against Ken every fight it would be a sound investment."
Driving himself hard, three weeks before the fight Norton was down to 216 pounds, only half a pound more than he weighed for the fight. Trainer Bill Slayton ordered Norton to resume eating steak for breakfast. The two also studied films of Young's victorious fights with Ron Lyle and George Foreman. They catalogued weaknesses, although admittedly there were few to find, and designed a fight plan.
"Young gets away from right hands by moving his head to the right while stepping to the right," Slayton was saying two days before the fight. "And he likes to tie you up. Then, when you relax, he punches inside. Kenny has to step back and punch when Young tries to tie him up. Young doesn't make many mistakes because he doesn't take many chances. That's a typical counterpuncher. They wait and they wait, and they wait for the other guy to make a mistake. Then they pour in. It makes' for a dull fight."
Since taking over for Futch in 1974, Slayton has worked on tightening Norton's punches, introducing and then improving a jab and getting his man to punch in combinations. For Young, he had Norton working on countering the counterpunch.
"Kenny is not a smart boxer, but he is a lot better than he was," Slayton said. "Once in a while he gets angry and starts firing those wide outside shots and he gets clobbered. He came out of the Bobick win thinking he was a devastating puncher. I told him that if he started throwing those big Bobick bloopers against Young, he'd get hit twice before he knew it. If he fights Young like he fought Bobick, oh, Lord."
While Young beat the pre-fight drums, Norton maintained a low profile, and, except for periods of training, was seldom seen around Caesars Palace. Although he stayed at the hotel, he ate all of his meals at a secret apartment. The food was cooked by Joe Dee, a chef from Biron's La Jolla Hotel in San Diego. "We've heard the Palermo rumors," said Biron. "Things have been known to happen to fighters. We don't want anything to happen to Kenny."
"I keep hearing about the late great Blinky," said Young. "What's a Blinky?"
"To hell with Blinky Palermo," said Ray Kelly, another of Young's managers. "I'm the bad guy around here. I'm tired of hearing all this talk about Palermo. We're here to make a fight, and Blinky Palermo has nothing to do with it. Let's put it to bed."
With the Palermo rumor laid to rest, at least for the moment, the fight began with Norton coming out like he was trying to put Young to bed. From the onset he all but ignored Young's head, an elusive target at best, and concentrated on sledging heavy blows to the body. Apparently shelving his own plans for the moment. Young fought as he had fought and beaten Lyle and Foreman: clinching, countering, retreating. Occasionally he would pause and slam home a right-hand lead, which seemed to baffle Norton, and then move on.
Norton came on in a crouch, bobbing and weaving, never still. His hands, usually held in tight in the old Archie Moore crossover defense, were slightly more extended and almost moving. The hands added an extra movement to throw off Young's rhythm, and mostly it worked well.
Through the early rounds Norton pressed his savage body attack, with Young trying to slow him down with jabs. In the third Norton pounded two punches to the body and then caught Young on the chin with a short, savage hook. Young staggered back, shaking his head. Later he said it was the only punch that had really hurt him. The attacks ebbed and flowed; seldom were both fighters at rest.
Meanwhile, none of the judges was seeing the same fight. Take the third and fourth rounds: Lurie gave them both to Young; Rondeau gave them both to Norton; Baldeyrou saw them both as even.
Through the first nine rounds Norton kept boring in and scoring to the body; Young kept surviving, but also scoring with jabs, right-hand leads and occasional flurries. Then Young switched his attack and became more aggressive. He opened up with heavier guns. Well, heavy guns for him. He was in command from then through the 14th round, and it was at that point that Ali, who was in the front row, leaped to his feet to scream, "I don't want to fight Norton again. Beat him, Young! Beat him!"
In the corner Slayton told Norton that he needed to win the 15th round. Across the way Young's people figured they had the fight locked up. Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, had sent word that he thought Young was out in front. "I always did go for a boxer," Dundee said later.
Storming out, Norton picked up his attack to the body. Young went to work on the head. With so much at stake, neither dared to pause. For the full three minutes they banged each other about the ring. Then it was over. Norton had won the last round. And then that curious decision was announced.
Afterward, Jose Sulaiman, the president of the World Boxing Council, announced that Ali had 60 days to sign to fight Norton and six months in which to fight him or to be stripped of his title. Promoter Don King said he would offer the champion $8 million to defend against Norton. Biron said King could have a 30-day option on Norton's boxing services. Then everybody sat back to await Ali's pleasure.
Typically, Ali was having none of it. For one thing, he had already announced a Feb. 15 title fight against the survivor of next week's Leon Spinks-Alfio Righetti bout. For another, why should he obey the WBC? "I'm not going to sign, and we'll see what they're going to do to me," Ali told ABC-TV in a ringside interview. After all, he had just fought Earnie Shavers, Ali said, and "they going to tell me I don't have the right to rest?" Off in his dressing room, Jimmy Young maintained that he had won and should be meeting Ali. He did admit, however, that Norton was a much better fighter than he had believed. Also, he said that the reason he had failed to produce the promised blood was that Norton had skin like rawhide.
As for Norton, he said that Young was a fine and tough opponent. Just as soon as he had taken the title away from Ali, Norton said, he would be glad to give Young another shot.
Then everybody went home. As the arena emptied, a Los Angeles fight figure named Vein Head was heard to say, "Y'know, Blinky doesn't have the old clout like he used to."