On Sept. 28, 1976, Muhammad Ali met Norton in the ring at Yankee Stadium for their third fight.
Ali had taken the heavyweight title from George Foreman two years earlier in Zaire at the Rumble in the Jungle. Norton, the one major contender left, had beaten Ali in San Diego in 1973, but Ali had beaten him in the rematch later that year. The fight in Yankee Stadium was to settle it all and this time the heavyweight belt was on the table.
Jim Murray was in New York for the bout and what follows was his preview of the fight that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on the same day as the fight, which Ali won in a 15-round decision.
September 28, 1976, SPORTS
Copyright 1976/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Does the Man Bleed?
NEW YORK — Anyone who has ever been to Stillman’s Gym, a Warner Bros. movie or the old St. Nick’s Arena on a Saturday night knows what a fighter looks like who has had more than 200 fights, amateur and professional, has been floored, won and lost his title, had his jaw broke and had to turn to wrestling to hustle a buck.
First of all, there’s all that scar tissue, right? The nose looks like a pancake. There’s that nervous twitch. He walks on the balls of his feet as if the earth were a pitching ship on a storm-tossed sea.
When he speaks, which he does in a laryngitic whisper, the voice sounds like someone being strangled or trying to talk with an arrow through his Adam’s apple.
If someone starts to count to 10, he’ll get out of bed in a sound sleep and begin punching the air. If someone rings a bell, he’ll attack a lamp pole. Red Skelton can do him to a T. His brains are scrambled eggs, his eyes are slits, his lips permanently swollen. He tries to pay no attention to the flock of birds constantly flying over his head. He talks through his nose because that’s the only thing left with an opening.
You often find him outside the Garden wearing dark glasses and selling a cup of pencils. He’s Mountain Rivera in “Requiem For a Heavyweight.” He’s Marlon Brando in “On The Waterfront” telling Rod Steiger, “I cudda been a contender,” only it come out “cuttehah” because he has a permanent cold in the hose from right hooks and hasn’t been able to pronounce an “n” in years.
He may be shining somebody else’s shoes in a golf club in Georgia or at an airport in Texas. He’s broke. Some dame in high-heeled shoes some place has got his money. She only got what some mob guy in a gray hat and cigar didn’t take first.
He is the victim of countless industrial accidents but the state unemployment doesn’t take care of him. Nobody takes care of him. A hundred guys were around lighting his cigars when the champagne was flowing and the parties went on till dawn. They cross the street now when they see him coming. When he dies, a stranger will find him. His last companion will be a bottle of muscatel.
Let me now present to you a real-life pug who has been trading left hooks with the world for more than 18 years, 16 of them as a professional.
For Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Marcellus Clay, the cruel world of fistiana, the shatterer of dreams, the maker of human flotsam has been Camelot.
Look at the eyes. Not a mark on them. The nose. It’s downright pretty. No one knows if he bleeds. He never has.
Listen to him talk. It’s hard not to. Nothing wrong with that Adam’s apple. It’s a melodious sing-song, half street patter, half Sugar Hill.
He hasn’t got a pimple on him. His ears don’t look like uncooked biscuits. You could hang earrings on them.
He’s made $38 million in the ring and he owns property in as many locations as the Santa Fe Railroad. He is the chief support of an entire religion. He is the highest-paid performer in the world. He gets up to a million dollars a minute, certainly a round. He doesn’t need an oil well. His left jab is his oil well.
Eisenhower was president when Ali first laced on a pair of boxing gloves but when he goes to the White House now, he checks it over to see if he’ll like it. He barely finished high school but even the Supreme Court took cover when he came before it.
He is the only man in the world who can mock integration and not evoke a chorus of indignation. They cheer whatever he says. No one wants to mess with him in open debate. Better to knock Motherhood than Muhammad Ali.
So, why isn’t he in a rooming house in Pittsburgh and it’s raining outside and the blinking neon outside the window keeps him awake? Why isn’t he shuffling along Harlem looking for handouts?
For more than 16 years, he’s fought the toughest guys on this planet, guys right out of the slammer for armed robbery, guys who busted cops with their own nightsticks, guys who came into the fight game on the bottom of freight trains or who learned to fight with their fists on rooftops so they wouldn’t get thrown off. Why aren’t his ears stopped up? Why isn’t his nose broken, his speech stammering, his gait shuffling?
Why doesn’t he owe the government $20 million or so? How come his wives haven’t taken him to the cleaners? How come he doesn’t need a white cane like Sam Langford or a nose job or an ear transplant?
Has the fight game gone soft? Isn’t there a Fritzie Zivic to detach your retina with a thumb gouge any more? Did the Marquis of Queensberry really take over? Why, the guy Ali is fighting for the title tonight is so pretty he’s a movie star between fights. Not Mike Mazurki guarding the gang’s hideout but right up there in gorgeous Technicolor kissing the leading lady. And that’s not all.
No, Ali has bucked the system, the establishment, the odds, tradition and the law of the fight game by observing one principle: hard hitters get hard hitten. Ali can hit as hard as he wants but, more importantly, as often as he wants. Ali doesn’t get in fights, he gives a recital, a showing. It’s like paintings at an exhibition, Rembrandt showing his oils. Heifetz doing Bruch.
There has never been a 220-pound athlete who can move around a ring with the swiftness and grace of Ali. Most of his fights are things of beauty like a Moiseyev ballet. He doesn’t beat his opponents, he capes them.
There has never been another like him. Two hundred fights, 20 of them for the highest stakes in sports, the heavyweight title, and he could go on “What’s My Line?” tomorrow and be mistaken for a guy who spent the last 10 years in a monastery.
Someday, somewhere there may be a guy who can set bells ringing in Muhammad Ali’s ears, who can put a haze over those eyes, who can thicken that tongue, still that banter, slow those legs, scar those lips or tear those eyelids.
Ken Norton? From here, Ken Norton looks like just another fiddle to the artist. Ken Norton, like so many of the others, may find himself playing straight man to the star by Round 3. Or Round 1.
The crowd does not go to see Ali win or lose. They go to see The Performance. Art. One of these nights it will be the artist’s last landscape. Too bad they can’t hang it in the Louvre.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
Jim Murray Memorial Foundation P.O. Box 661532, Arcadia, CA 91066