|Muhammad Ali lands a sharp right cross on the jaw of Ken Norton.|
So suddenly Muhammad Ali found himself in a very foreign role, that of a contender. It had been a long while since he had been cast in this role. And Frazier was not about to give him a rematch until the public absolutely demanded it. The first fight, in the Garden, had proved to be simply too costly. For even though Ali had taken that gargantuan left hook late in the fight, Frazier had been horribly beaten about the head and eyes during the struggle. In fact, unlike Ali, he'd spent nearly a week in the hospital recovering. So unless his hand was forced, there would be no immediate rematch. There were far easier pickings out there than another battle with Ali.
So Ali went on the road. He fought everywhere. He fought anyone. He even took a world tour, of sorts, fighting other contenders in South Africa, Belgium, London, Tokyo, Berlin and even Tokyo. And he, slowly, kept improving. Getting his timing back after three and half years out of the ring. He learned something about himself. He realized he could no longer dance for twelve or fifteen rounds straight. Age had taken that away from him. He learned to 'sit back on his heels and punch' as Angelo Dundee said. For the first time in his career he was forced to use a rusty talent he had rarely employed...he began to punch. Most people forget that Ali was a very big and strong man. They forget because Ali didn't show them that part of his arsenal. He never needed to. He was so fast and so unbelievably gifted as a lightning quick, defensive fighter that no one ever saw him simply sit down and do some toe-to-toe punching. So we began to see that unexpected side of him. He began to rack up KO after KO. He went through every single major conternder in the world. He beat everyone.
In the meantime, Smokin' Joe Frazier had the great misfortune of stepping into the ring with someone he expected to handle with ease. A very young Olympic champion named George Foreman. Foreman was expected to be another easy payday for Frazier. But instead, he was lucky to escape with his life. Foreman gave Frazier one of the great beatings in modern pugilistic history. He knocked him down seven times in two rounds. One mammoth uppercut actually lifted Frazier nearly four feet off the mat. It was a massacre. And suddenly the world had a new champion, Sonny Liston reborn, a six foot four, two hundred twenty pound behemoth of a fighter. George Foreman was an awesome figure. In hindsight, probably the hardest puncher in the history of the game and that includes Dempsey, Louis, Marciano and Liston. He damn near killed Joe Frazier that night in early '73. And all of a sudden there was new sheriff in town.
So the continuing saga of the golden age of the heavyweights (the 1970s) began to unfold. The stage was set with Foreman as the unbeatable world champion. An awesome puncher. Frazier was the number one contender. And Ali sat behind Frazier. The question was, who would Foreman agree to fight? Give Frazier a rematch or take on Ali, whom he considered the less dangerous of the two fighters? But again, like all great epic novels, another twist, another turn, another shocking develpment entered the chapters: his name was Ken Norton.
Norton was a middle-of-the-road, crab-like fighter out of San Diego. A former marine and college football player with a physique like Adonis. Not a devastating puncher but not a powder puff, either. Ali agreed to fight him as he continued to slash his way through the heavyweight ranks. And in a twist-of-fate kind of fight, Ali took him on in what was thought to be just another training fight.
I've seen the fight many times. It's not an especially exciting fight because Norton had a style, his cross-armed, shuffling, forward gait, that confused Ali. But that wasn't the reason he upset the heavyweight apple cart. Early in the second round, Norton connected with a quick right hand cross that gave Ali a hairline fracture of the jaw. His cornermen immediately realized it. Dundee wanted to stop the fight. Ali refused to. He fought the rest of the night with an unimaginably painful broken jaw. And the fight, even then, was very close. But Norton walked away with a split decision and suddenly Ali found himself once again in the role of struggling underdog.
Foreman was calling the shots by then and could afford to take his time with his next big fight. So he decided to let Ali and Frazier scramble through the other heavyweights and take on the winner. Suddenly, much to his chagrin, Ali found himself not one, but two fights away from recapturing the crown. First he had to beat Norton in a rematch and then beat Frazier in a non-title fight. A long road. And after all that, should he succeed, he had to take on the most frightening fighter in the history of boxing, George Foreman. Not until a decade later, when Mike Tyson first came onto the scene, had the sport seen anyone so completely dominate the heavyweight division. Louis had dominatated to a point, but had been beaten early in his career so didn't have the same mystique as Foreman. Marciano had dominated, too, but his time was filled with less than stellar heavyweights. Only Foreman was considered invinceable. As Red Smith, the venerated sports writer had written, "George Foreman will remain champion until he decides to quit. Or the end of time. Whichever comes first."
It was halfway through the great dramatic novel. The protagonists and antagonists were set. The plot had been a twisting, unexpected page-turner. And, like all great fictional characters, Ali found himself in deep, deep trouble. His chances were slim, at best. And, like all great novels, the stage was about to explode with surprises.
See you tomorrow.