There are fights, there are big fights and then there are those special moments in the ring when there is much promise in the air, when something dramatic and chillingly memorable is about to imprint itself on our minds. The Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton title fight is not one of those moments. This may be a risky assumption, doubly so when you add that Ali will stop Norton inside seven rounds in Yankee Stadium next week in the first heavyweight bout to be held outdoors in New York in 17 years. On paper, it rates the venue. But after you blow away all the hype, the screwy logic and the urgent anticipation of Ali haters who breathe heavily whenever he is faced by anyone who, anatomically, is in one huge, beautiful piece, only this remains: curiosity.
The fight lacks the stuff of true theater. There is no Floyd Patterson wounded and lost, seeking redemption against the unsoulful and malevolent Sonny Liston. There is no Cassius Clay, hysterical on the eve of the first Liston fight in Miami Beach. This is not the Frazier-Ali series, with all its coiling virulence, bitter feelings and political and sociological undertones. No. this is merely an oldtime big fight, the kind that occurred often when the fight world was free of words like psyching and TV satellites and was genuinely shocked if a fighter did more than grunt.
Such a fight calls for a certain ritual: a long dinner, verbal excursions into boxiana and a good slow-burning cigar. The procedure reassures one of his civility before so primitive a rite as a heavyweight title fight. "Ordinarily." says Al Braverman, the 300-pound manager of heavyweights Dino Dennis and Chuck Wepner, "I'd recommend something light...like fish followed by a bottle of Chateau Latour '58. But with this one you can go heavy, something Italian or German, with no limit to the wine or beer. The digestion won't be bothered by this fight. There's nothing personal here. It's just a good fight. Somewhere to go after dinner." Usually a marksman at fight analysis, Braverman is certain " Ali cannot 'lose." His opinion, though, is slightly tainted; he is allied with Don King, the promoter who was dropped by Herbert Muhammad, Ali's manager, and "crossed by Norton." Norton alleged in a court case brought by King involving breach of contract that King had tried to block the promotion of this fight.
Madison Square Garden and the inexorable Bob Arum are the co-promoters of the bout, only the second title match in New York in over five years. It is a compatible alliance, combining the institution that ravaged the sport in New York by abusing young talent through its calloused attitude, with the lawyer Arum, who once admitted he could not care less about boxing; to him, it is a business—like underwear on Seventh Avenue. This is a tough tandem, resolute in its desire to skim the last of the cream from the game, although Arum does say that this fight is his first step in putting boxing back upright in the Garden. The Ali-Norton promotion jumped off the blocks superbly, selling $1 million worth of tickets soon after the fight was announced back in May.
Since then, ticket sales have been sluggish, closed-circuit theater bids not overwhelming, and there seems to be an undercurrent of concern, if not panic, among the promoters. In seclusion in Show Low, Ariz., Ali (the master of flak and salesmanship) was pressed hard to train in the New York area instead of appearing only several days before the fight. Was the Garden running scared? If so, one could hardly blame it. The 65,000 capacity of Yankee Stadium would look like a wasteland with even a good fight crowd, and Norton was guaranteed $1.1 million, Ali $6 million.
The crowd figures to be about 30,000 (tickets are scaled at $200, $150, $100, on down), but what about those crucial theater seats? On the negative side, the fight seems to lack character, meaning that Norton is not clearly identifiable to the general public (which determines theater receipts); meaning also that there is no genuine conflict of character or philosophy between Norton and Ali to stir the fan. In its favor, this can be said: it is a splendid "talking" fight, one of those events that can be chewed on endlessly, one of those "armchairers" that open up many avenues of debate. Like these: What about that one point that separates Ali and Norton after two previous meetings? And Ali's broken jaw in the first fight? And the closeness of the second fight? Why did Norton look so desperate against Ron Stander, the heavy bag? Why did he look so lethargic against broken-down Larry Middleton? In the end, is Norton just a journeyman who got lucky? Did Ali's shabby defense against Jimmy Young reflect more than just poor condition?
In his camp at Grossinger's in the Catskills, Norton likes to talk about his two fights with Ali, the first in March 1973 the second five months later. He likes to stress how he broke Ali's jaw in the first one, and tries to build a case for why he should have won the second, which he lost by a point. The films do not agree with him. He started slowly, caught fire in the middle, and might have won it had he not been so passive in the last round. He did nothing in this round; his corner had miscalculated the scoring, figuring he had a lot of lead to spare. " Ali stole that round with showmanship," says Norton's manager, Bob Biron. "That was the difference." Biron also believes that Norton was trained too finely, that he was too light at 205 and could not reach back for strength when he needed it.
Norton, at 31, will be about 212 for Ali this time under a different trainer, Bill Slayton, once a semi-pro linebacker. Asked where he would use the 6'3" Norton (once a very good wingback) on a football team, Slayton said, "I'd make him a flanker. He's got great speed. He doesn't like to block or hit. You can see that." Slayton hints that Norton will use his jab a lot more and that there will be a solution—not a pretty one—if Ali tries to hold his fighter by the back of his head. " Ali doesn't like a jab, never has," says Slayton. "He gets worried about his face. I hope Ken can cut him early, get him thinkin' about his face." Slayton adds that the Stander and Middleton fights were tune-ups, and that they were not the type of opponents that bring out the best in Norton. "He either respects a guy or under-respects him," Slayton says. "It's a mental thing he's got. It's all mental with him in the ring."
Ali trains a few miles away at the Concord Hotel. His camp is a bit more tranquil than usual. Because he was annoyed with the crowd around him in his camp in Michigan, Ali did his preliminary work in the vast desert quiet of Show Low, with only a few aides and his latest health guru, the comedian Dick Gregory, on hand. This atmosphere seems to have been brought from Show' Low to the Concord. Gregory has set up a special health room for Ali, with $600 blenders, baskets of carrots and fruit and every vitamin and mystical concoction known to man. "Hurry up! Hurry!" Gregory yells to the man at the blender. "The champ's ready for his carrot juice."
Ali does not say much about the two fights with Norton, but the party line goes like this: The first fight can be dismissed because, next to his attitude toward Jimmy Young and his preparation for that match, Ali has never been more contemptuous of an opponent or in worse condition; even on the morning before the fight he was romantically distracted. Erase also the second bout. Ali prepared well for this one: running hard, chopping down trees, drawing his strength from them, he said. The trouble was that he could not punch, could not keep Norton off because of his chronically sore hands, and besides he was worried about his jaw—whether it would hold up or not. "I boxed the last eight rounds of that fight with open gloves," says Ali. "Now my hands are like steel. I'm gonna blow him outta there! Can't have a man bein' champion who walks 'round like he did in that movie." He was alluding to Norton's highly sexual role in the plantation film called Drum.