Foreman and Holmes split on Ali-Norton rivalry
In terms of scoring, it is arguably the most controversial heavyweight title defense of Muhammad Ali’s glorious career.
On Sept. 28, 1976, at Yankee Stadium in New York, Ali won a 15-round unanimous decision over California-born boxer-puncher Ken Norton, who entered the bout as No. 1 contender. It was a huge event, marred by an N.Y.P.D strike and the subsequent looting that took place inside the arena as a result, but for many, the one man who was truly robbed that night was Norton.
It was the third bout between the pair. Norton had caused a sensation in March 1973 when he upset a lethargic Ali on a 12-round split decision in San Diego, breaking the jaw of the former champion with a ruthless performance. Eddie Futch, the great Hall-of-Fame trainer, had spotted weaknesses in Ali’s game that Norton could exploit and, in reality, the decision should probably have been unanimous.
Five-and-a-half months later, Ali was in excellent fighting trim for the rematch in Inglewood, California. He was the lightest he had been for almost three years (212 pounds) and his dancing feet were reminiscent of those peak years against Sonny Liston and Cleveland Williams. That was, at least, until Norton exacted a toll with a pulverizing body attack. A worn-down Ali resorted to duking it out in the late rounds and escaped with a razor-thin split decision of his own.
The rubber match was for the undisputed heavyweight championship and this time a victorious Ali left the ring disconsolate, as thousands of disenchanted fans booed the most famous athlete on the planet.
Over the years, the third Ali-Norton bout has been frequently re-examined and it perpetually comes under the heading of “controversial.” Now, perhaps for the first time, two legendary former heavyweight champions, who are also common opponents of Ali and Norton, offer their own opinions on that fight and an often overlooked rivalry.
“All I remember is that the result in that third fight angered the public,” said former two-time heavyweight champion George Foreman. “In my opinion, Ali didn’t beat Kenny Norton in either of the first two fights and he didn’t beat him in the third fight either.
“It was Norton’s style of keeping his right hand in front of his own face. He would catch Muhammad’s (left) jab and was tall enough, with a long enough reach to jab back. (Joe) Frazier did well against Ali in close, but he didn’t have the reach on the outside the way Norton did. Muhammad had a rough time with Norton and, what’s more, he didn’t have the punch to knock him out.”
Foreman is right of course. Stylistically, Norton was Ali’s very own fistic “Da Vinci Code” and “The Greatest” looked more like “The Okayest” every time they shared a ring. In 39 rounds, you can count the number of times Ali hurt Norton on your thumbs and there was not one single knockdown in the entire trilogy.
Larry Holmes, another bona fide ring legend, learned his craft from Ali as a sparring partner before evolving into a brilliant boxer who ruled the heavyweight division for 7 1/2 years. Holmes won the WBC version of the title in June 1978, going through hell on earth against Norton to claim a 15-round split decision.
This reporter informed Holmes that Foreman had Norton up 3-0 in the Ali-Norton series.
“I don’t agree with that,” snapped Holmes, when informed of his fellow Hall of Famer’s opinions. “I thought (the rubber match) was a great fight and a very close fight. A lot of people felt Muhammad won and a lot of people felt Kenny won. Personally, I favored Muhammad because I preferred his style of fighting.
“When Ali and I used the ring against Norton we could control the action and win rounds. That side-to-side movement was something that Kenny couldn’t deal with. I built up a big lead against Norton by doing that in our fight and then made the decision to stand with him and punch it out.”
When it came to trench warfare, Norton, a former Marine, could hold his own with almost any heavyweight. He traded bombs with Ali, Holmes and Jerry Quarry, among others, but when he faced the colossal Foreman disaster struck. “Norton tried big hooks against me instead of jabbing because I had a harder jab,” explained the hard-hitting Texan who, as champion, stopped Norton in two rounds in Caracas, Venezuela.
“I was also able to go to Norton’s body to open him up. Ali was never a body puncher and he didn’t have a really strong uppercut. When Ali fought me, I stood straight up with my hands down, so he was able to land the right hand. Ali couldn’t do that with Norton, who kept his head low or leaned back. That gave Muhammad real problems.”
Norton’s humiliating defeat to Foreman in March 1974 was hardly an aberration because he would be exposed by other punchers. Earnie Shavers clobbered him inside one round in March 1979, as did Gerry Cooney, who retired a faded version of the Adonis-like Californian two years later. Give Norton a terrific boxer and he was in his element, give him a big puncher and he was found wanting.
A peak Holmes, like Ali, excelled against home-run hitters. “The Easton Assassin” dominated Shavers (twice) and also scored a signature victory over Cooney in June 1982. “George could beat Kenny Norton because Kenny was made for him,” said Holmes, once again highlighting that old adage that “styles make fights.” “Against punchers, Kenny didn’t have the ability to move side-to side and he was vulnerable. You don’t stand in front of George Foreman. You don’t stand in front of Earnie Shavers. You don’t stand in front of Gerry Cooney.
“You’ve got to move on guys who can hurt you, or they’re going to get off with those big punches and take you out.”
Despite Foreman’s declaration that Norton owned the trilogy against Ali, the affable 67-year-old made it clear that “The Greatest” remains exactly that. Ali has the vastly superior record and his accomplishments are beyond reproach but Foreman’s philosophy is simple: No fighter should be labeled unbeatable. There is always a bogeyman out there who is able to pick the lock of invincibility.
“Muhammad was a better overall fighter than Kenny Norton,” confirmed Foreman. “He had so much endurance, that great left jab and, if he was at his best, that quick right hand. You can’t compare them in terms of who was the better fighter but, with that being said, he couldn’t really beat Ken Norton.
“It was the same with me when I fought Muhammad. I’ve had other losses in my career, but the one guy who truly beat me was Muhammad Ali. Other fighters survived and won decisions, but Muhammad beat me. Some fighters just have your number and Norton had Muhammad’s number, there’s no question about that.”
So what if Norton had been given the verdict that night at Yankee Stadium 40 years ago? Would the future of the division have been vastly different? Would Ali have fought again? Could Holmes, who was waiting in the wings as a top-10 contender, have become champion even sooner?
When Ali incredibly lost the undisputed title to a seven-fight novice in Leon Spinks in Feb. 1978, he lobbied hard for a rematch and Spinks accepted. The WBC, which had promised Norton a shot at the winner, responded by stripping Spinks of their title and awarded it to Norton, who had outpointed Philadelphia-slickster Jimmy Young in an eliminator the previous November.
Norton lost in his first defense to Holmes, but that fight will never be forgotten and “The Easton Assassin” is convinced that he beat the best heavyweight around at that time.
“Norton was given the (WBC) title but he would probably have beaten Ali (in a fourth fight) because he was stronger than Ali in 1978 and he was definitely stronger than Leon Spinks,” said Holmes, who would go on to stop a faded Ali in Oct. 1980 for the linear heavyweight championship.
“I think I became champion at the right time and I doubt things would have been any different for me. I was brought along very well and got my big break against Kenny, who I believe was the man to beat at that time.”
Ali versus Liston or Ali versus Foreman are favorites on ESPN Classic and readily available on DVD. The great Ali playing the magician, pulling off miracles against killer punchers. However, look back at the Ali-Norton series and witness “The Greatest” being truly tested on a technical level in three highly competitive and entertaining fights that should never be forgotten.
Tom Gray is a UK Correspondent/ Editor for RingTV.com and a member of THE RING ratings panel. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing