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From the archive: Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton 2 should have been a draw, writes ringside reporter

Despite gaining revenge, Ali was tested to his very limits by Norton in their September 1973 rematch. Photo from The Ring archive
Fighters Network

Editor’s Note: This fight report originally appeared in the December 1973 issue of The Ring Magazine. It is being re-presented on the 47th anniversary of Ali-Norton 2.

By Bob Goodman

INGLEWOOD, CALIF – Muhammad Ali gained his revenge in the Forum but it was bittersweet as he had to summon every ounce of strength, skill and pride from deep within to win a split decision over the determined Ken Norton in the 12th and final round.

The stirring return battle kept the 12,100 Forum fans, who paid a California record of $584,400, on the edge of their chairs from the opening bell. Ali, who might have tried to come back too far, too soon, tipped the scales at a low 212 pounds, the same that he weighed nine years ago when he won the title from the late Sonny Liston. Ali was serious all the way for this one and didn’t revive any of his ring antics. Ali weighed 221 pounds for the jaw-breaker fight.

The muscular Norton, who weighed 205 pounds, five lighter than for his victory over Ali in San Diego last March 31, proved to the world that he was indeed a legitimate contender and that his prior victory over the former champion was no fluke.

As we sat in the dressing room before the fight, which was viewed by millions throughout the world via special telecast, Eddie Futch, the trainer and co-manager of the 29-year-old ex-marine, was laying out the fight strategy, just one more time.

“He’ll be coming out fast and will keep it up as long as he can,” explained Futch. “I figure maybe five rounds. You are going to have to keep that pressure on. Cut off the ring and work to the body. He’ll slow down. Just keep it up and be patient.”

Ali, on the other hand, was in his dressing room watching the closed-circuit monitor showing the re-run of their first fight, filling time on the air because of Jerry Quarry’s quick fourth-round disposal of Tony Doyle in the special semi-final, scheduled for ten.

“See that, Angelo? As long as I’m moving, he’s mine,” Muhammad said to trainer Angelo Dundee as the crafty Miamian cautiously wrapped Ali’s hands. “In the kind of shape I’m in now, I shouldn’t have any trouble this time.”

Ali’s jaw was broken by Norton in their first encounter. Photo from The Ring archive

It started out just the way the dressing room chatter mapped it out.

Ali was “stickin’ and dancin’,’” the left hand darting out to stave off the relentless pursuit by Norton, who at this point looked puzzled by Ali’s great speed. Ali kept circling and shooting out the jab and an occasional combination in rhythmic patterns. Clearly winning the round, Ali didn’t bother to accept his stool for the rest period.

Muhammad kept moving and jabbing, throwing flashy combinations during rounds two and three. Norton, following Futch’s battle plan, didn’t seem bothered by Ali’s blows and just kept coming, trying to pin the elusive Ali into a corner. Norton is a deceptively clever defensive fighter and kept his composure through the first three stanzas, even though he had lost them.

According to the California scoring system, which affords one point to the winner of the round and zero to the loser, unless it’s a big round which would score two or even three points to the winner, Norton was behind on our card, 3-0.

In round four Norton started catching up with Ali and although Muhammad kept circling and jabbing, the powerful Californian managed to connect enough, especially at the end of the round when an overhand right to Ali’s jaw seemed to shake the boxing master who had been giving and inspired exhibition of reflexes and skill up to this point. We called the fourth round even.

During this rest period, Jerry Quarry, sitting with his new wife at ringside, called this reporter over, “You know that Ali is fighting like he’s scared to death?”

An interesting observation from the man who had been on the losing end with Ali twice before.

Ali, in spectacular fighting shape for the rematch, wrapped up training at the Marriott hotel in Los Angeles. Photo from The Ring archive

Muhammad finally sat down between rounds but was up for the buzzer and came out fast for round five. He was still doing it all, jabbing, circling and flashing combinations but Norton was now shortening the distance between the two. He nailed Ali against the ropes and dug a two-fisted attack to the body.

At this point in the fight, Norton seemed to be growing more confident and even yelled at Muhammad at the bell. We gave this round to Norton, bringing the count up to 3 rounds to 1 in favor of Ali with no points being awarded for the even round.

The sixth round was action packed with both unloading some heavy artillery. The exchanges brought the celebrity studded crowd to its feet as Ali landed more often with Norton missing quite a bit. Norton did mange to get Ali on the ropes to land a few more telling blows but Muhammad found his mark.

Near the end of this round Ali seemed very weary and wore a disgruntled look on his face at the bell as he flopped on his stool. We gave the round to Ali, making it 4 points to 1.

The seventh round was Norton’s best and the widest margin round of the fight. Ali got caught with a right hand to the head that stopped him cold. Norton pinned Ali in the corner and dug to the body and then to the head.

All over Ali, Norton kept firing as Ali, in trouble, covered up his head with both hands. Muhammad managed to tie up Norton. Moving into a corner again, Ali played give and take with Norton but then got staggered with a solid right to the chin.

Norton kept digging, throwing both to the body and head with an occasional right uppercut to open Ali’s guard. He chased Ali across the ring with a torrent of blows at the bell. Many of the writers felt this was a two-point round for Norton. We agreed.

Our card stood at 4 to 3 in favor of Ali.

Sensing Ali’s plight, the partisan crowd roared, trying to bring their hero on to new heights, “Ali, Ali, Ali,” the chant was almost deafening. Ali scored a few jabs but Norton kept coming, gloves up. Norton connected with a good left hook to the head, driving Ali into the corner. Norton landed time and time again with a good overhand right dazing Ali. A clear round for Norton.

Ali was still holding on as the fight was now even on our card, 4 to 4.

While Ali seemed to be getting weaker, Norton appeared to be growing that much stronger and more confident. In this round, the ninth, it was apparent that although Ali was landing, his blows no longer had near the effect of those of Norton.

Norton was landing less but doing more damage. The bee did sting enough in the round to earn the point on our card, making it 5 to 4, Ali.

The tide had clearly turned as Ali again danced out for the 10th but Norton wasn’t buying any tickets for Ali’s dance ball. Norton drove Ali to the ropes and landed a hard left to the head, shaking Ali. Muhammad kept trying, but the younger Norton kept exerting that constant pressure. Even Ken’s jab was working. Norton went up even on the card once again, 5 points to 5.

The two gladiators were setting a tremendous pace for heavyweights and both were weary as round 11 was starting. Norton, with his tremendous strength, again got to Ali with the pressure. Eddie Futch kept yelling from Norton’s corner, “C’mon Ken, tighten up on him, pressure, pressure!” and the fighter responded, just as he had all the way through the hard fought battle.

Ali did manage to hurt Norton at one point during the round but didn’t follow it through. The action was still furious as Norton won the round on our card, putting him on top for the first time, 6 to 5.

Could it be? Would this be the end of Muhammad Ali? It was the 12th and final round and he had to be either down or just even on everyone’s cards. Through this point, both Ali and Norton had fought a tremendous battle. The trend seemed to indicate that Norton would dominate the final round, just as he had in San Diego.

December 1973

As the bell rang, Muhammad met Norton with rapid combinations in the center of the ring. He took the initiative, taking the starch out of Norton in the first crucial 30 seconds of the round. He was throwing and Norton was catching, trying to cover up. Eddie Futch in the corner threw his head up in anguish, “No Ken, no,” he said. Futch seemed like a man who had planned it perfect only to see it slipping away in the final minutes.

Norton tried to press but Ali was standing proud, trying to defend what could be his entire life in one last stand. During the other 11 rounds, he seemed to be motivated by fear. In this last and final round, he was being motivated by the pride of a great champion.

He won that all-important final round and the split decision verdict. On our card the fight was scored a draw, 6 points to 6. Judge George Latka scored it 6 to 5 for Norton; Judge John Thomas had it 6 to 5 Ali and Referee Dick Young had it 7 to 5 for Ali.

A frustrated Norton thought he had won the fight. Eddie Futch and the other co-managers, Art Rivkin and Bob Biron, also felt that Ken had made the fight as the aggressor and had landed the more decisive blows. But they also didn’t want to take anything away from Ali, who had fought a great fight against one of the very best heavyweights in the world.

Ali showed great courage and determination, fighting one of the best fights of his life against the toughest opponent he yet had faced.

“Ken Norton is the toughest man I have faced,” said Ali after the exhausting battle. “He hit me more times than I’ve ever been hit before and I was in great condition. I moved for 12 rounds, more than I moved in any of my fights.”

It was reported that Ali might have broken his right hand, the sixth round was when it was supposed to have happened. But examinations proved negative. He did hurt his hand and had some difficulty moving the fingers after the fight.

It was truly a tremendous heavyweight battle. The kind of fight that made you think of the days when kids wore mackinaws and Good Humor still tasted creamy. They danced, they brawled, they stood and it all boiled down to the pressure-packed final round.

Many of the ringside reporters like Dick Young of the New York Daily News; Ed Schuyler, boxing editor for the Associated Press; Dan Hafner, boxing editor for the Los Angeles Times; columnists Jerry Izenberg and Jack Murphy, among others, thought that Norton had won the fight. But it was such a good one and such a close one, nobody was going to file any vehement protests.

Boxing needs more fights like the Ali-Norton affair, which was, incidentally, for Norton’s North American Boxing Federation crown. We’re not sure how many more fights like that Ali and Norton can take. It was a grueling fight and both participants did themselves and the sport proud.

They did well for themselves in the financial department, with Ali certain to exceed his $275,000 guarantee with his 35% and Norton likewise with 30% against his $200,000 guarantee.

When Top Rank Inc. adds up all the ancillary income, it could wind as one of the richest fights in history, second only to Ali-Frazier. It just goes to show that fans will turn out for a good match. Anyone for the rubber?