Then there was the scene outside the ballpark, which made the post-fight civil disorder look like a sear of tranquility. Dual riots, one staged by demonstrating off-duty New York City policemen and the other by would-be gate-crashers, pick-pockets, and (in the words of one Madison Square Garden executive) “every hoodlum in this town,” forced, at one point, every ticket-taker in the joint to abandon his post, closing all the agates to the stadium, while the streets were blocked even to pedestrian traffic. Between those who were unable and those who were unwilling to enter, barely 30,000 ticketholders actually showed up to watch the fight.
Not that the competitors – particularly the Champion – hadn’t done their best to bally-hoo the spectacle. The two had trained rather conspicuously at a pair of Borscht Belt resorts – Ali at the Concord, Norton at Grossinger’s – before repairing to the Big Apple in order to make the network television circuits over the weekend. On CBS Saturday afternoon Ali had spoken of being “scared to death” of Norton, and had wondered aloud whether the time might not have come to crown a new Champion. He later repudiated those remarks, but they were prophetic.
On Sunday night Ali and Norton participated in a mock “weigh-in” on the Dick Cavett Show, much to the displeasure of the New York State Boxing Commission, which had been asked for neither advice nor consent. And on Monday Ali had held center stage at a press conference, ostensibly held to announce a movie based on his life – during the course of which he harangued the assembled media with dire threats of “annihilatin’” Norton, “dee-stroyin’ that sucker,” building periodically to fever pitch and then lapsing back into genial affability and near rationality. By then, nobody knew when to take what seriously.
Tuesday morning’s weigh-in was nearly as interesting as the fight itself. On Monday morning, James A. Farley, Jr., taking umbrage at the sham weigh-in on the previous nights Cavett program, had ordered the proceedings moved from the Essex House (whence it had been scheduled, principally because the hotel also housed the press headquarters), to the commission office, changing the hour (from 11 a.m. to noon) as well , and levying a fine for “demeaning the sport” upon the principals.
The Garden PR people, naturally, were quick to scream long and loud, since nothing could be more superfluous than a weigh-in for a division that has no weight limit, the ceremony was being stated almost entirely for the benefit of the press, and conduction it under conditions of such intimacy would vitiate it of any publicity value whatsoever. At long last they prevailed the scales were moved back to the Casino-by-the-Park Ballroom at the Esssex and the time was rolled back to 11.
When the appointed hour dawned, nearly 1000 people packed the room – but neither fighter was there. Among those in attendance, though, it was duly noted that between the security people, the dubious types who hang around the fringes of New York boxing circles and the Fruit of Islam contingent lining the walls, there was enough iron present that had the audience been required to file through an airport metal detector, it would have sounded like six pinball machines at once.