Such was Muhammad Ali’s position in our culture on March 31, 1973 that when Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw in the first round in San Diego and went on to capture a split decision, the New York Times made over its front page to include a paragraph about the heavyweight fight.
It was only one paragraph, which is because next to nobody expected Norton, a former Marine who had been seeing a hypnotist to overcome self-doubt, could beat the legendary Ali.
The bout with Norton was held just six weeks after Ali cruised to a decision in Las Vegas over Joe Bugner on Feb. 14, 1973.
After that bout, the legendary sports writer Mark Kram noted that not much was expected of Bugner:
“He came in as a long-priced pawn to Ali’s ring carnival, got cut badly in the first round and went on for the distance to make it an action fight, limited as it was,” Kram wrote in the Feb. 26, 1973, edition of Sports Illustrated.
Norton wasn’t expected to provide that much opposition. It was another of Ali’s stay-busy fights as he worked toward a rematch with Joe Frazier, whom he’d lost to on March 8, 1971, in what is widely regarded even now as the most significant fight in boxing history.
Frazier was ringside that night in San Diego to watch Ali face Norton. There was talk, even in early 1973, that Ali would meet the reigning heavyweight champion, the fearsome 1968 Olympic gold medalist, “Big” George Foreman. At the time, though, Foreman was playing hard to get and kept saying he wasn’t interested in Ali.
Norton was a Marine with a chiseled body, even though he proudly would say at that point that he’d never lifted a weight in his life. He was the single father of a son, Ken Jr., who would go on to play in the NFL and is now the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks.
In a 1987 profile of father and son in Sports Illustrated by the great Ralph Wiley, Norton Sr. explained why he took custody of his son:
“When Jeanette and I got divorced, there were no hard feelings,” Norton told Wiley. “No real hard feelings. I took Kenny because he was my son, and I loved him. She’s a good lady, but she could not have loved him more than I did. I learned to change diapers, feed him. I didn’t have to learn to love him.”
Norton was getting by on $100 a week at the time, which is why he jumped on the opportunity to fight Ali for his then-career high payday of $50,000, which, adjusted for inflation, is $291,304.05. His previous largest check was $8,000, and he knew if he could beat Ali — or even put up a solid showing — he would position himself to earn many multiples of that in subsequent fights.
Ali was his typical brash self in the build-up, but by that point in his career, he wasn’t good enough to just show up and win. When he was a young man, when he fought by his birth name Cassius Clay and then by Ali in his first several defenses of the title he’d won in 1964 from Sonny Liston, he was a physical marvel. There was never a heavyweight who combined speed, power, athleticism and boxing IQ the way that young version of Ali did.
The 1973 version of Ali was a different fighter. He could still perform at a high level — as he showed in 1974 bouts against Frazier and Foreman and in the classic 1975 bout against Frazier nicknamed “The Thrilla in Manila” — but he needed to be motivated to work hard to prepare.
He clearly didn’t prepare well for Norton. In a 2013 story in the San Diego Union-Tribune which recounted the 40th anniversary of the bout, sports columnist Tom Cushman noted that in the week prior to the fight Ali was flirting with a travel agent and sprained his ankle while hitting balls at a local driving range.
But if he respected his opponent, he was still formidable. Even then, though, he fought flat-footed and relied more on his boxing IQ then he did on his physical skills.
It was clear, however, he took Norton for granted, while it was also clear that Norton prepared for the fight of his life.
Norton broke Ali’s jaw in that fight. The official report is that it happened in the first round. Norton always insisted it happened in the 11th. Others have speculated that it occurred in the second.
Ali trainer Angelo Dundee told reporters that he wanted to stop it in the second round.
“ … Ali wouldn’t let me,” Dundee said. “The commission doctor told me he had broken his jaw.”
Norton’s style was the most difficult that Ali ever faced, and despite the fact that they’d fight two more times, Ali never really figured it out. Norton won a decision in that first fight, but then lost two decisions in the next two.
He’d go on to be named the WBC heavyweight champion in 1977 when Leon Spinks opted to do a rematch with Ali instead of defending as ordered against Norton. That gave Norton the distinction of being the only man to hold the heavyweight belt while never winning a heavyweight title fight.
Norton was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992 with a 42-7-1 record, and 33 KOs. His fight with Larry Holmes remains one of the great bouts in boxing history, and he met all of the top stars of his era.
So lightly was Norton regarded at the time, though, that in the April 9, 1973, edition of Sports Illustrated, Dan Levin wrote:
“If Ali paid any attention at all to Ken Somebody, it was only because of Somebody’s hypnotist, who seemed to bother Ali. No matter. San Diego was just another payday. So Ali went in against Ken Whoeverheis and got his jaw broken, probably in the first round, by a punch no one saw, and lost, leaving the sweet science — heavyweight division — in a very nonscientific shambles.”
That win basically punched Norton’s ticket to the Hall. Ali showed his class by rebounding to win the heavyweight title twice more.
In the immediate aftermath of the fight, he said, “I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.”
He’d go on to defeat Frazier in their rematch in 1974, then won the title back by knocking out Foreman in Zaire later that year. In 1975, he stopped Frazier after 14 incredible rounds in searing heat in Manila. He lost the title to Spinks, but regained it in a rematch that was seen by more than 90 million people on ABC.
But whenever talk of Ali’s most significant fights arises, March 31, 1973, the night he lost to an unknown named Ken Norton, will always be on the list.
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