Book Excerpt: Muhammad Ali ‘beats’ Jimmy Young thanks to gift decision
Today marks the 44th anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s unanimous decision victory over Jimmy Young, arguably the most controversial result of his second title reign. Most contemporary observers not only disagreed with the official result, they were outraged by the margins of victory granted by judges Tom Kelly and Terry Moore (both had Ali ahead by seven points, while Larry Barrett had Ali up by two) This, more than most fights, was a match for its time because it epitomized the conventional wisdom that a champion — especially a heavyweight champion — had to be nearly bludgeoned in order to lose his championship on points. Because the beneficiary was Ali — far and away the sport’s biggest star and its most prolific generator of ancillary income — the effect was further magnified.
The following is an excerpt from “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers written by Bob Canobbio and Lee Groves, which is available for purchase on Amazon.com. This excerpt is also accompanied by CompuBox punch-stats that were compiled off video as well as by the official round-by-round scorecards as provided by Bob Yalen, one of the sport’s foremost archivists.
Without any further delay, let’s go back to April 30, 1976 in Landover, Md.
For Muhammad Ali, 1976 promised to be an extraordinarily busy year. Even before facing Jean-Pierre Coopman in February, Ali knew what lay ahead: Jimmy Young in April, Richard Dunn in May, a boxer-wrestler exhibition against Antonio Inoki in June and the rubber match with the top-rated Ken Norton in September. Because each assignment also required considerable preparation inside the gym, Ali had precious little time to recharge his batteries, and, at 34, that process required much more time – and, in retrospect, more energy – than he had at his disposal.
Ali’s potential reward for successfully navigating this ambitious schedule was massive: A gross take that would exceed $10 million, of which $6 million would come from the Inoki match alone (though he ended up being paid $2.2 million). (1) Business was booming, and the business of being Muhammad Ali was, at least on the surface, even better.
History states that Ali avoided defeat in 1976 as he turned back Young, Dunn and Norton while also emerging with a draw against Inoki. Had Ali fought the same fights in the present day, however, Ali may have come out with a 1-3 record. To most eyes, Young and Norton had done more than enough to win the title from Ali while Inoki’s kicks inflicted so much damage that Ali was fortunate not only to walk out of the ring under his own power but to fly home without the resulting blood clots killing him. (2) As it was, he had to be hospitalized for several weeks.
Until the late-1980s, the conventional wisdom in boxing was that a challenger had to almost annihilate the defending champion in order to win the title by decision. The common phrase used to describe this concept was that a challenger had to “take it from the champion.” Entering 1976, only four times in heavyweight championship history had a challenger won the title on points from a defending champion. The first occurred in February 1906 when Tommy Burns out-pointed Marvin Hart over 20 rounds. The second happened in September 1926 when Gene Tunney overwhelmingly out-boxed the beloved Jack Dempsey over 10 rounds while the third saw Jack Sharkey beat defending champion Max Schmeling by split decision in their June 1932 rematch. The most recent example was when Max Baer virtually handed the title to “Cinderella Man” James J. Braddock with his excessive clowning before losing over 15 rounds. Even then, one judge, George Kelly, still saw fit to score the fight 7-7-1 under the rounds system before deeming Braddock the winner on the supplemental points system. Thankfully, Kelly was overruled by referee Johnny McAvoy (9-5-1) and judge Charley Lynch (11-4), both of whom scored the fight in the ring instead of the mythical belt around Baer’s waist.
An added barrier for Ali opponents was that Ali was boxing’s biggest star as well as its greatest source of cash flow. He attracted massive media coverage before and after each fight, generated enormous ancillary income for the cities that hosted his matches, produced incredibly high Nielson ratings that, in turn, resulted in huge advertising revenue for the TV networks lucky enough to air his fights. Finally, Ali’s fights kept boxing near the top of the pecking order in terms of visibility and relevance. The depth and breadth of his celebrity extended into books and movies as well as other avenues inaccessible to other fighters, such as fast food chains and, in the future, comic books, commercials and a Saturday morning cartoon series. For these reasons, conventional wisdom stated that once Ali’s championship reign died, so would boxing as a whole.
For those charged with the responsibility of scoring Ali’s fights, this one-two punch of historical precedent and present-day circumstance presented an integrity-based quandary. If Ali’s less charismatic opponent out-fought him in a given round, would that judge acknowledge it or would Ali’s “champion’s advantage” be applied? Since most distance fights have a number of “swing rounds” that are open to interpretation, that advantage could rob the challenger of a close but deserved victory. All of these factors appeared to be in play on April 30, 1976 at the Capitol Center in Landover, Md. when Young challenged Ali.
The 27-year-old Young was the only child of William (an expert welder) and Ruth, and while Young always felt he was a good athlete he didn’t join any teams in high school. Young turned to boxing because he felt it was the best way to deal with his expanding waistline.
“I was overweight and I just went down to the Police Athletic League Center gym on 22nd and Columbia in Philly to work out with some guys I knew and lose weight,” he said.
Young showed enough talent to take his pursuit to the next level –
an amateur career. There, he compiled a modest 15-6 record which included two New Jersey Golden Gloves titles. (3) Young then turned pro with a first-round TKO over Jimmy Jones October 28, 1969 at Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon.
Despite the sensational result in his maiden voyage, Young was a Philadelphia fighter who didn’t fight in the city’s classically combative style. He was the quintessential “cutie” who put defense above offense, fed off opponent’s mistakes with piercing jabs and sharp counterpunches and specialized in making his opponents look bad. That resulted in paydays so sporadic and minimal that between fights he served as a sparring partner for Joe Frazier and Oscar Bonavena as well as future opponents Earnie Shavers and Ken Norton.
“I worked as a sparring partner for Norton before his second fight with Ali and gave him problems,” Young recalled. “He never hit me hard, not that he tried to, but I could see then that if Norton was qualified to fight for the championship, eventually my time was coming too.” (4)
Young’s best victories came against Ron Lyle (W 10), Richard Dunn (KO 8) and Jose Luis Garcia (W 10) but he also experienced setbacks. Shavers crushed Young in three rounds and held him to a draw in the rematch while Clay Hodges, Randy Neumann and Roy Williams accounted for the other defeats.
Young’s 17-4-2 record boasted only five knockouts and his personality, while pleasant, couldn’t hold a candle to Ali’s in terms of attracting and sustaining media attention. For those who appreciated the nuances of self-defense, Young was a delight. For the masses, however, he was a dud. So, if the atmospherics and attitudes of the boxing world in general weren’t enough of an impediment to Young’s potential ascension, his comparatively bland demeanor and unattractive ring style presented two more possible roadblocks to upending the great Ali.
Ali, of course, won the pre-fight press conference going away.
“I’m so fast, I’ll hit you before God gets the news,” Ali told Young, a line that got big laughs from the assembled press. “Boy, I’ll hit you so hard it’ll jar your kinfolks in Africa.”
“Aren’t you tired of repeating all that?” Young asked, chiding Ali for repeating old lines. “That’s been played out.”
“No, I’m not tired. As long as I got new heads to beat on, they’re gonna listen,” Ali shot back. “And your head is new.”
Young’s best attempt at humor was when he addressed Ali as a “tramp” instead of a champ. The line barely registered with the reporters. (5) He also didn’t impress the odds-makers, who saw Young as a 15-to-1 underdog. (6)
What Ali did not win was the weigh-in. Not only did Young show a much more playful side, the gelatinous champion scaled an unsightly 230, three pounds more than his previous career high of 227 against Buster Mathis Sr. more than five years earlier. Meanwhile, Young was a fit 209, six pounds lighter than for his most recent fight, a 10-round decision over onetime title challenger Jose “King” Roman.
After the top-rated Norton stopped Ron Stander in the fifth and Larry Holmes, a frequent Ali sparring partner, advanced his record to 21-0 by out-pointing Roy Williams, Ali and Young took center stage and put on a most unexpected show.
Speaking of sparring partners, the title fight wasn’t the only time Young ever stepped inside the ring with Ali. On January 27, 1972 at the Hampton Roads Coliseum in Norfolk, Va., Young was one of four fighters who shared the ring with Ali during an eight-round exhibition. Young, along with Jeff Merritt and James Tracy Summerville of Miami as well as Buffalo’s Johnny Gauss, sparred two rounds each with Ali before approximately 3,700 fans. Jersey Joe Walcott, who infamously officiated Ali’s rematch with Sonny Liston, was the referee here, and chief second Angelo Dundee flew up from Miami to be in Ali’s corner. When Ali was introduced to ringside physician Dr. Albert Thompson, Ali said, “I don’t need a doctor. Joe Frazier needs a doctor.” (7)
Ali made $15,000 for the exhibition while Young made considerably less. Here, however, the purses were far better: $1.6 million for Ali (plus $200,000 in training expenses), $85,000 for Young. (8)
The contrast in energy level and sharpness was graphic in round one, but unlike Ali-Coopman it was Young that displayed the skills and Ali who was his willing foil. Ali’s most threatening punch of the round was a sloppy hook that badly missed the target and threw Ali off-balance. Then again, there wasn’t much from which to choose because he threw just five of them – and none of them landed. Meanwhile, Young was spry, engaged and active. The evidence: Young fired 74 punches and landed 18, including 16 power shots that connected at a 62% rate. Although Ali failed to land a single blow and barely tried to attempt one, referee Tom Kelly and judge Larry Barrett called the first round even while judge Terry Moore correctly judged the round for Young.
Rounds two and three were more of the same – Young fighting and Ali playing. While Young’s punches carried little steam, they did land, and, unlike Ali, he was fully engaged and trying to win. Ali was content to raise his arms over his head and point a glove at his stomach and invited Young to hit it – which he did. Not only that, Young eagerly seized upon every opening Ali made available to him. Conversely, Ali continued his antics, such as leaning heavily and comically against the ropes while drowning Young in endless verbiage. Despite Young’s command of the action (17-6 overall, 9-1 jabs, 8-5 power and a 57%-36% lead in power accuracy), Kelly and Moore saw Ali the winner while Barrett judged it for Young.
The perceptual malady that apparently afflicted the scorers also infected several members of the media. ABC’s Howard Cosell reported that while reporters gave Young the first two rounds, the consensus was that the third was even, a round in which Young tripled Ali in total attempts (78-26) and total connects (21-7). As for the “official” officials, Barrett scored the round even while Kelly and Moore saw Ali the 5-4 winner. Why? Although the first “Star Wars” movie wouldn’t be released until a year later, Ali had apparently mastered the Jedi Mind Trick.
Entering the sixth, Ali had yet to out-land Young in any round and his statistical deficits were daunting – 76-35 overall and 58-19 power. Young averaged 68.3 punches per round in the first nine minutes to Ali’s 17 before Ali perked up to 43.5 and Young decelerated to 34 in rounds four and five. One would have thought that Ali, having given away the first third of the fight, would have felt a sense of urgency. He did not. That’s because past experience taught Ali that he could flip the switch anytime he wished and pull himself away from the fire. After all, Ali whiled away most of the first 10 rounds against Lyle before polishing him off in the 11th and he ceded most of the first eight rounds to Wepner until a flash knockdown in the ninth stirred him from his slumber. If he could do that against Lyle and Wepner, why shouldn’t he have felt the same about Young? To Ali, Young was just another fighter who was fated to fail.
Ali finally showed signs of life in the sixth and seventh rounds as the reality of his situation began to sink in. Here, Ali fought with more purpose while Young descended into a defensive shell. Still, Ali’s punches lacked the snap and accuracy of past fights, plus Young’s fluid upper body movement made the champion’s punches look even more ponderous. In comparison to the first five rounds, however, Ali was fighting much better while Young was not. The seventh saw Ali throw 81 punches, which would be his highest total for the contest. It was Ali’s best round yet, but even so he led by only 14-13 in total connects and landed 14 of 62 power shots (23%) to Young’s 10 of 17 (59%).
It was also in the seventh that Young committed what was construed as his greatest sin. With 43 seconds remaining in the session and Ali belaboring him with blows for the first time in the fight, Young leaned sideward and intentionally stuck his head between the top and middle ropes. It was an act he would repeat several more times, and ultimately it played to his detriment, not just during the fight but in its aftermath.
Nevertheless, Young was still fighting well enough to win rounds. With each passing minute the unthinkable prospect of a new champion became more real. Ali’s corner watched in stony silence, as did most of the crowd. That changed when Ali began to dance midway through round nine, and though he missed most of his punches, this resurgence and the cheers that accompanied it signaled that maybe all was still right in the world, that Ali would find a way to remain champion. It didn’t matter that Young landed the hardest punch of the sequence, a flush counter right over Ali’s overextended jab, or that Young out-landed Ali 10-6 overall and 5-1 power. All that mattered was that Ali was fighting better. The evidence: All three judges gave Ali the round. No matter what Ali did (or didn’t do) it dominated the viewer’s eye to the point that the opponent was rendered irrelevant, if not invisible.
Ali’s dancing continued in the 10th, movement that helped conceal Young’s 9-2 lead in overall connects in the eyes of the jurists, two of whom voted for Ali while the third saw it even. Ali then moved forward in the 11th, but while he threw 16 punches and landed four (including an excellent right to the jaw, his best blow of the fight thus far) Young, though backpedaling, landed 15 of 67. Young finally broke through here as he won the round on all three cards — the first time he had done so in the entire fight.
Norton, the man who stood to lose the most with a Young victory, joined Cosell on commentary in the 12th. He was as astonished as anyone at Ali’s lack of timing, conditioning and sharpness but he was heartened when, in the final minute, Ali pushed Young to the neutral corner pad and tried to
drown him in leather. Ali’s rally broke open what had been a close round and allowed him to take a narrow 17-16 lead in total connects. The exclamation point at the end of the sentence happened in the round’s final moments when Young ducked his entire upper body through the ropes to get away from Ali’s assault, a move that prompted referee Kelly to call a standing knockdown.
“They counted laying outside the ropes as a knockdown,” Ali said afterward. “That hurt him. I don’t think he would have done it if he realized that. That was his mistake.” (9)
“(I did it) to keep the pressure off me,” the counterpunching Young countered. “That was part of my strategy. I even used some of the ‘Rope-a-Dope.’ ” (10) Curiously, despite the penalty, all three judges scored the 12th 5-4 for Ali, not 5-3.
That didn’t stop Young from doing it again when Ali trapped him on the ropes at the start of the 13th, then again seconds later. While Kelly didn’t issue a count either time, the crowd booed loudly and, worse yet, the cowardice Young’s maneuver projected couldn’t have helped his cause. Young connected with a booming right and a follow-up one-two in the final seconds that forged his own 17-16 lead in total connects. While Barrett and Kelly saw the round 5-4 for Young, Moore scored it 5-4 for Ali.
Suspecting he needed the final two rounds to pull off the massive upset, Young dug down and produced the far superior numbers in the 14th: 23 of 77 versus 5 of 36. A pair of flush rights to the chin late in the round stunned Ali and forced him to back toward the ropes, which he followed with another right lead that snapped back his head. It was enough to impress all three judges, who rightly gave Young the round.
By the start of Round 15, the crowd rose as one, sensing that it might be sitting in on history. So did Norton, who exhorted Ali throughout the entire rest period.
Young got off to a horrible start by ducking his body through the ropes for the fourth time. But he more than made up for it by attacking Ali with a previously unseen consistency. It was quite an impressive effort for a man who, until tonight, had never fought past the 10th round.
Despite Young’s good work, the overarching question of whether Young did enough to “take” the title still hung over the proceedings.
“The only thing that can cost Jimmy Young is the frequency of defensive tactics,” Cosell told Norton. “I think you made an effective point (about) taking the title away from the man.”
The 15th round numbers suggested he did enough – more than enough: 23 of 56 overall for Young, 7 of 37 for Ali. The final figures also foreshadowed a Young victory; he threw more punches (752-594), landed more in every category (222-113 overall, 65-27 jabs, 157-86 power) and did so far more precisely (30%-19% overall, 15%-12% jabs, 51%-24% power). He finished stronger than Ali (46-12 overall, 32-7 power in the final two rounds) and the round-by-round breakdowns saw Young out-land Ali in 12 of the 15 rounds overall and compile cavernous edges in the other two categories (11-2-2 in jabs and 11-4 in power shots). Although Cosell reported that scores around ringside were mixed, the reporter covering the fight for the Associated Press saw the fight 69-66 for Young. (11)
By every measurable indicator, Young should have been declared the winner and new heavyweight champion.
Except he wasn’t. Even more outrageously, the margins in Ali’s favor were almost criminal – under the five-point must system referee Kelly saw Ali a 72-65 winner (10-3-2 in rounds) while judge Moore turned in a 71-64 score (11-4 in rounds). The only man in the building who gave Young any sort of credit – though not nearly enough – was judge Barrett, who saw Ali leading 70-68 (7-5-3).
The crowd loudly booed the verdict and one famous picture of Young that was snapped the moment Ali was declared the winner said it all: Eyes wide, mouth agape and his glove covering his cheek. It was the essence of shock and disappointment.
“I thought I won the fight,” Young said. “I really thought you had a new heavyweight champion. I’ve been hurt more in the gym (by sparring partner Mike Koranicki). I didn’t daze him but I thought I shocked him with a couple of punches. I deserve a rematch.” (12)
Referee Arthur Mercante Sr. strenuously objected to the scoring of referee Kelly, who somehow scored the first 10 rounds 50-41 for Ali.
“The referee was way off in his scoring up to that point,” he told World Boxing’s editor-in-chief Peter King. “The whole fight was a farce anyway. Actually, it was an exhibition.”
Harold Lederman, a respected New York state official and future “unofficial official” for HBO, also believed the wrong man’s hand was raised.
“I think Jimmy Young won the fight,” the future Hall of Famer told King. “It really shouldn’t matter that it’s a heavyweight championship fight. The winner should be the man who does the most. I think Young did more. Ali just didn’t do enough to warrant his winning the fight.”
Veteran scribe Lester Bromberg of the New York Post, who felt Young won 10 rounds, called the verdict “a travesty on judging. Jimmy took command early and only intermittently surrendered it. The bout was a throwback to the classic class of bad decisions.”
New York Daily News sports editor Dick Young agreed, scoring the bout 11 rounds to 4 for the challenger. (13)
However, THE RING’s editor-in-chief Nat Loubet not only confirmed the “champion’s advantage” that saved Ali’s title, but justified it.
“Many at ringside believed that Young had won,” he wrote. “If there was a point of difference it would seem that a challenger should take a champion’s title away from him and not win it running away, and there was no doubt but that Young ran to live another day. We must not take away from Young the point that he lasted fifteen rounds with an inept champion, but he looked like a little boy against the heavy boned champion. Young looked more like a light heavyweight at his 211 pounds (sic) and never gave the impression of being overly dangerous.” (14)
In other words, in Loubet’s eyes, Young wasn’t deemed a suitable successor to the mighty Ali because his style wasn’t the “right” style and his look wasn’t the “right” look. Thus, Young was denied his dream and Ali was granted the privilege of continuing his reign.
Ali admitted that he had fought “the worst fight of my career.”
“He hit me with a hook and burst my right eardrum,” he said. “I don’t remember which round. I hurt it in the Philippines once before and he reopened it. I was hurt twice. He hit me with two right hands. I saw stars and my knees started to buckle.” (15)
To his credit, Ali mostly blamed himself for his poor showing.
“I weigh 230 pounds, just what I weigh when I’m in terrible shape,” he said. “I’m 34 and I’m telling you what I did was a miracle, going 15 rounds and beating that young man. I’ve been eating too much pie, too much ice cream. You wouldn’t believe the things I do in training.” (16)
Training that, thanks to his packed schedule, was becoming much more chore than privilege.
“I made a mistake by contracting myself to fight too much this year,” Ali confessed. “The training is getting so boring. Do you realize that I have to go back in training two days from now? I really don’t want to train.” (17)
But the win over Young gave him no choice; he had to train, no matter what. Moreover, he was now obligated to fly 4,200 miles from Landover to Munich, West Germany to defend his championship against England’s Richard Dunn – and that fight was just 24 days away.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS: Ali landed just 19% of his total punches — his lowest percentage in the 47 Ali fights tracked by CompuBox. Ali landed just 27 jabs in 15 rounds, less than two per round. Conversely, he averaged 7.9 landed jabs per round in this statistical study. Ali never landed more than five jabs in any round against Young and was mired in single digits in terms of total connects in eleven of fifteen rounds. Ali landed just 113 punches, his lowest total in a 15-round fight.
Notes: (1) “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” by Thomas Hauser, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1991, p. 336
(2) Ibid, p. 337-38
(3) “Norton vs. Young: The Heavyweight Showdown,” by Greg Nolan, Boxing Illustrated, October 1977, p. 19
(4) Ibid, p. 19
(6) “Muhammad Ali vs. Jimmy Young; Covered from Ringside,” by Nat Loubet, THE RING, July 1976, p. 6
(7) “Clay’s Sparring Jousts Enthrall Virginia Fans,” by Jack Levinson, THE RING, May 1972, p. 58
(8) Boxrec Encyclopedia
(9) “Young ‘Ducks’ Away From Title,” United Press International, published in the Deseret News, May 1, 1976, p. 6A
(10) “Young Thinks He Won Bout,” United Press International, published in the Leader-Post, May 1, 1976, p. 37
(11) “Ali Retains Title with Left Jab,” Associated Press, published in the Leader-Post, May 1, 1976, p. 37
(12) “Young Thinks He Won Bout,” United Press International, published in the Leader-Post, May 1, 1976, p. 37
(13) “Our Exclusive Investigation Reveals Muhammad Ali Lost to Jimmy Young,” by Peter King, World Boxing, September 1976, p. 36
(14) “Muhammad Ali vs. Jimmy Young; Covered from Ringside,” by Nat Loubet, July 1976, p. 7
(15) “Young ‘Ducks’ Away From Title,” United Press International, published in the Deseret News, May 1, 1976, p. 6A
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 16 writing awards, including two first-place awards, since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.