Ali did not think so: "You got to beat the champ, you gotta whup him! Did he beat me convincingly? I had to beat Joe Frazier twice, Sonny Liston twice, George Foreman.... You can't fight like Jimmy Young. You got to whup the champ! Drop me! Make me fall! Hurt me! Do you think I paid the judges? They never give me anything. I'm not a good American boy. I'm an arrogant nigger. They're white men. They wouldn't give it to me if I didn't win it."
A well-worn bit of sophistry, this use of race, this donning of the martyr's robes when backed against the wall, but Ali must know better, or he is as dumb as some think he truly is. In the past, Ali has always been given the best of it. He was allowed to hold Frazier by the back of the head (55 times) in their second fight. He was given, rightly so, the benefit of doubt in the Young bout. "The only thing the people watch and the judges see," says Slayton, "is what Ali does in the ring. They don't see the other guy." That comment carries much truth, but it is also more than sufficient reason for a' challenger to try to rip a title from a champion, to shock judges away from the hypnotic presence of Ali.
What is one to make of the decision? Do you take a title away from an Ali on a one-round difference in 15 muddled rounds? Can a solid case be made for Norton? Those who saw him as the winner believe that no evidence has to be gathered for Norton, pointing out that scoring in the end is the ultimate delineator, scoring based on number and content of blows, aggression, ring generalship and defense. The trouble is this: How can you score such a bad fight, how can one be so clear in such murky going? Scoring is always imprecise, and in this case it was almost impossible. In a close contest any judgment must be highly subjective. It hinges on tradition (the heavyweight title has changed hands only three times by decision since 1932). It involves sentiment and preference for style and the man—and with Ali, the mystique of the man.
Technically, on hard scoring, I gave the fight to Norton by one round, but it was a troubled 8-7—without real conviction. He was ahead 7-6 at the end of 13 rounds, won the 14th big and ignored the 15th. The 14th and 15th meant the fight for Norton. Two of the judges, Barney Smith and Harold Lederman, gave the 14th to Ali. "They were playing catch-up," says Biron. "They had given too many rounds early on to Norton, and now they were leaning hard into the wind for Ali. In heaven's name, how can you give him the 14th?" Even so, Norton was still alive on both cards going into the 15th; it seemed the officials wanted a dramatic statement from him. "If Norton had started in the first minute of that round," says Lederman, "and started with that right hand, he would have been champion." Arthur Mercante, the referee, says, "Aggression is one thing, but effective aggression is another. A lot of the time Norton was not effective."
If Norton was lethargic, the New York police were useless outside the Stadium, this $100 million worth of concrete and steel in the West Bronx; it might as well be in the most remote part of New Guinea. On this night the cops chose the Stadium as the scene of a job action over work schedules and deferred raises; hundreds of them, off duty and on duty, turned the night into a holiday for muggers, pickpockets and general marauders. The on-duty cops did nothing except laugh at—and sometimes join—their off-duty colleagues, who were blowing whistles and stopping traffic. Their eyes were turned away as one saw a man hit over the head and then frisked rapidly while he was on the ground; as one watched an arm reach into a limousine and pull out a necklace; as one looked on while three photographers were robbed of all their equipment; as tickets were stolen right out of hands and women were pawed. It was not a pretty sight.
Nor was it easy on eyes to see Ali on this night. He seemed a pathetic figure, merely a master of illusion, groping with his loss of reflexes; his feet knew precisely where to be, but his hands and mind seemed to be hooked up in some diabolical plot against him. He reminded one of Paul L�autaud, who writes of man's relationship to his body, his image, in his Journal. "Damn it all!" he writes, after a woman remarks upon his age. "How impossible it is to see oneself as one really is!" That is much to ask of anyone, and it is no certainty that Ali can do it, either. If he has done it sincerely, looked into that shimmering glass at all that he was and is, if he has retired, then it would be a remarkable triumph of sense over ego. If not, then one wishes he somehow could get a picture of the image left by him in the ring at Yankee Stadium: that of a cat hung by its tail outside a window, trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws, the sound grating and chilling and the spectacle altogether too cruel.