For a fight that produced no knockdowns and not one drop of blood—although buckets of it had been promised—last Saturday night's clash between heavyweights Jimmy Young and Ken Norton fell somewhere between being a classic and a curiosity. What saved the show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas was 15 rounds of unremitting action, with each man alternately rising to or retreating from the occasion. And then, when it was all over, came the puzzling split decision. Puzzling not because it was unfair, but because for men who are paid to make a decision, two of the judges were hopelessly indecisive.
One, Raymond Baldeyrou, a Frenchman, voted for Norton but gave him only six rounds. He called six even. Another judge, Jim Rondeau of Seattle, also had Norton on top, but gave him seven rounds. He called five even. The third judge (in Nevada the referee doesn't get to vote) was Art Lurie of Las Vegas. He had the fight for Young, eight rounds to six, with but one even. Their combined arithmetic, or whatever mysterious form of mathematics they were using, gave Norton a clear edge with 19 out of a possible 45 rounds while Young had only 14. For what it was worth—which was absolutely nothing—Referee Carlos Padilla said, "If I had had a vote, I would have voted for Young."
With that sort of climax to an encounter that was supposed to decide who gets to fight Muhammad Ali for the title, it was not surprising that Jack Levin, one of Young's managers, had a few bitter words. "With all the talk around here all week about Blinky Palermo," he said, "I'm beginning to think that we would have won the fight if we were really connected to him."
The rumor had, indeed, spread around Las Vegas and other fight circles that Palermo, one of the underworld's bosses of boxing before his 12-year sabbatical in the Lewisburg, Pa. penitentiary, had moved in as the force behind Young and was responsible for his sudden rise to fame and fortune. All last week, Young and his managers, Levin, Ray Kelly and Bob Brown, had vigorously denied any connection to the onetime Philadelphia numbers racketeer.
Young certainly didn't have the winning number in Vegas. Under Saturday's 10-point-must system, a fighter who gets 10 points in a round wins it—unless the judge awards his opponent 10, too, which was so often the case at Caesars Palace. While rounds scored even are not a rarity, they seldom come in such clusters and usually are scored that way because both fighters are doing a whole lot of nothing. This wasn't the case on Saturday.
The sustained assault from Norton over the distance was hardly a surprise, although there were those who had guessed that he might try to offset Young's cute tactics with a more deliberate attack. But, big and powerful, Norton has always performed best against an opponent he knows can't hurt him, and in this case Young was made to order. When Young punches the heavy bag it has been known not to move.
Unlike Norton, Young is known for winning by surviving; by piling up points while in full retreat. He fights to confuse, not to destroy, leaving opponents awake while putting audiences to sleep. But not this time, he had promised.
"When the bell sounds for the first round you are going to see the Norton everyone expects," Young said. "But then I'm going to whack him up alongside the head. The minute he gets popped you'll see a change in him. The whole thing boils down to hitting him alongside the head; hitting him everywhere but on the soles of his feet. Then after I whack him—and keep on whacking him—you're going to see Norton for what he is: a bully who quits when someone fights back."
All week Young leveled the insults against his unruffled rival. "He's Mr. Hollywood with toilet paper skin. I'm going to cut that movie star. Every time I hit him I'm going to twist my gloves. Look at all that jewelry he wears. Who does he think he is, Sammy Davis Jr.? I'd like to get him in a back alley in Philly. He can't fight; he's nothing but an experienced amateur."
Norton heard it all, and mostly he coolly ignored it. Except the crack about his being an experienced amateur. That one stung. It also stung when Eddie Futch, Norton's former trainer, picked Young to win.