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Perhaps there was only happiness and lucidity in Istanbul, but elsewhere around the world confusion and bad tempers simmered for days, especially among many of the 30,298 who had been at Yankee Stadium. The crowd had not only seen a bad fight, it had heard a decision which—for some fans and much of the press—was equal to the squalidness and general breakdown of law and order inside and outside the Stadium. The decision for Ali—8-7, 8-7, 8-6-1—brought down the sky on him, and outrage, scalding hot, ran from the pages of the press, leaving Ali far from being the "people's champion," leaving him a decidedly unheroic figure. His manager, Herbert Muhammad, may well have been re-examining his often repeated words: "I don't think anything can hurt Ali. He is beyond criticism. He is a legend."
Legends should be allowed to die slowly; at least that is what Ali seemed to want in his dressing room after the fight. But here it was, all the reality of this awful moment smothering him, each question like a knife thrust into his pride as an artist. My God, he seemed to be saying, they're going to strip me down bare right in this room and send me naked into the streets. He mumbled. He swore. He seethed inside. His head was down. Then a question came that released all the pounding hurt inside his head.
"How much longer can you fight with your mouth?" a huge black reporter asked.
"You're an Uncle Tom nigger to ask something like that," Ali snapped.
"I'm askin' you how long you can fight with your mouth," the guy pressed.
"Long enough to whup your black ass," Ali shot back.
Going into this fight, there were two questions—Ali's age and Norton's head—and the worst aspects of both would be confirmed, making it an un-memorable piece of physical art, yet an incendiary evening because of the ambiguity of so many rounds. There is no question now that Ali is through as a fighter. The hard work, the life and death of Manila, the endless parade of women provided by the fools close to him, have cut him down. Unlike the Jimmy Young defense, when he obviously was out of shape, there is no excuse for Ali's showing against Norton. He threw only one good combination all night. His jab, which once drained and depressed aggression, was only a nervous flick. But he was in excellent physical condition, and that along with a sure hand on his craft saved him.
Once more, as in his second fight with Ali, Norton's head got in the way. Here he is with a six-round lead going into the ninth, and he seems to unravel ever so slightly; he drops the ninth, and then four of the next six rounds to Ali, who has begun to dance and dictate the course of the fight with vast ring wisdom. Norton pursues ineffectively while Ali hand-fights, keeping Norton off balance, forever lodged in his turtle defense. It is the 11th round, though, when Norton makes his most serious mistake. He elects to parody Ali, to hang on the ropes, to put his hands down, to exchange repartee. How foolish, how insufferably wrongheaded. It is at this point when he should have been his most physical, when abandon and fury were called for, when he should have pushed Ali over the edge with the considerable strength left in his superb body. "Nobody is going to give us a gift against Ali," said Bob Biron, Norton's manager, before the fight.
So they all knew this, Norton and his corner, led by Bill Slayton. Now comes the 15th round, the pivotal round, the one that can shove Norton over the top without argument. "We've got to close the show," shouts Angelo Dundee, sending Ali out. "Turn tiger, champ!" Thinking the fight was wrapped up for Norton, Slayton moves him out with instructions not to get careless. The result is that Ali fights for two minutes and 40 seconds, and Norton wakes up the rest of the way. As the round ends, Norton stalks Ali back to his corner, shouting, "I beat you! I beat you!" Led back to his own corner, he leaps for the sky along with Slayton, both of them certain that the title has been won. Shortly, the verdict comes, and Norton, his head wrapped in a towel, is crying uncontrollably; sympathy pours down on him.
Norton got hold of himself later. "I wasn't even tired," he said. "If I thought it was close, I'd have fought back harder and more. When you fight Ali, you're behind at the start. It's obvious you have to knock him out to win. When it's that obvious, you have to think the judges stole it. They made asses out of themselves. The fight speaks for itself."