Has anything normal ever happened to Muhammad Ali? There was Liston on his stool, Patterson's aching back, Terrell's tears and Frazier's victory, which, to hear Ali tell it, was actually a loss and the crudest thing ever to happen to Joe. Last week Ali was in San Diego to fight Ken Somebody, but of course he was preoccupied with more important things, such as philosophy, selling T shirts and George Foreman's unwillingness to sign to fight him. 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. As the San Diego crowd mingled in shock no one knew what lay ahead for Ali. Howard Cosell, in his most stentorian tones, announced, "I don't understand."
Joe Frazier was there. Ali had been telling the world that Joe had really lost to Foreman in round 16 and 17 of his fight with Frazier, and now, savoring every word, Frazier said, "I can't say this was something I done to him."
The anticipated big-money matches were all but dead on the planning board. George Foreman had killed the first when he knocked out Frazier and thus the Ali-Frazier rematch. Then Ken, whose last name it developed was Norton, ended a possible Ali-Foreman fight. Ken Norton? At least people had heard of Foreman, an Olympic champion. Norton not only was unknown as a fighter, he did not even look like a fighter. He had a body-builder's physique, with arms that appeared ready to pop, the legs of a middleweight, a 44-inch chest and a 31-inch waist. "He'll break in half," Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee said.
Norton was ranked eighth among the world's heavyweights, but he seemed to have sneaked in. He had never fought a top-ranked fighter. He had tried, but Jerry Quarry's people said no, and Mac Foster's, and George Chuvalo's and Ron Lyle's. Maybe they knew something. But Muhammad Ali never ducked anyone, and there he was last week in San Diego failing to duck.
Nothing much happened in that first round, nothing anyone saw, that is, just a few tentative jabs from each fighter, maybe a fair right hand by Norton. Nothing damaging, certainly. But at the bell Ali had blood on his mouth, and he said to Dundee, "I think I've got a broken jaw." Forty-three bouts as a professional, 329 rounds with some of the world's greatest fighters, and a broken jaw? From what?
Dundee was guessing later when he said, "He must've gotten hit with his mouth open," always a reasonable assumption with Ali. And Dr. Ferdie Pacheco recalled that Ali's jaw is eroded where two rear teeth are missing. He said, "It's like having a bad back all your life, and suddenly one day you can't move."
As round two ended, another dull one, Dundee asked Ali, "Do you want to quit?" Ali said no, but he must have been in considerable pain, and for the next several rounds he danced on his toes, sidling away from Norton. Ali's footwork was a lovely thing to see, but it did not exactly pile up points, and he probably landed no more than half a dozen good punches in these rounds, most of them in one lingering, poorly conceived combination as the fourth round ended. Norton started talking as the sixth round began. "You're nothing," he said, and landed his best punch yet, a hard, jolting right to Ali's head. No fighter Ali has met, save Frazier, seemed less intimidated.
Ali stayed on his toes for two more rounds, the seventh and eighth, twice slowing Norton with good jabs and once, as the eighth began, jolting him with a short right. Norton was crude in comparison to Ali and he looked bad when he missed, but there was an unmistakable vitality about him that Ali seemed to lack. He kept getting Ali on the ropes and reaching back for terrible winging blows to Ali's middle. The 10th round was perhaps Norton's best. Once, as Ali held on, Norton came up under him and lifted him clear off the canvas. It was an impressive display of strength.
Ali seemed spent now, but somehow he rallied and had his best round in the 11th. He had Norton covering up, he seemed to be rejuvenated, his punches were sharp, but as the last round began Norton's corner told him, "Win this one and you've got the fight." And he did.
It wasn't always that easy for Ken Norton. He was kind of a wild kid, not delinquent wild but wild in a way that made it seem he would never live to grow up. That was in Jacksonville, Ill., pop. 20,000. One day when he was 8 he raced a train to a crossing on his bike and lost. There was not much left of the bike, but all of Ken seemed to be there still. At 14, on another bike, he was hit by a trailer truck and wound up on its hood, again unscathed. Scratch another bike. In high school he lettered in basketball, football and track and got numerous scholarship offers. He chose Northeast Missouri State and immediately was hit by a car, breaking his collarbone. Six months afterward he drove his car into the side of a bridge, where it hung by the rear door from a piece of railing 50 feet above a lake. Later, on a bet, he took eight sleeping pills and had to have his stomach pumped. One day toward the end of his sophomore year he just walked off campus and joined the Marines.