He launched into one more anti-Norton tirade, promising that the fight would not go over five rounds, then chided the press one more time. “You, Dick Young, and all of you press says that Muhammad Ali is over the hill, you’re gonna have to tear it up and write a whole new story tomorrow morning. Tonight when this fight is over you’re gonna walk out of Yankee Stadium shakin’ your heads and sayin’ that nigger is still good.’”
The ring was situated over second bass on Tuesday night, but in truth the entire field was a stage. Superflies and superstars promenaded about the infield, and celebrity-watching was the pre-eminent spectator sport The audience was virtually oblivious to the endless succession of preliminary bouts.
With regard to the former, there were enough turkeys involved that half of the scheduled six prelims ended in early knockouts. The result was that the promoters were forced to dig deeply into their reserves and keep trotting gladiators out into the ring; by the time the main even trolled around, they had exhausted all three of their “emergency” bouts as well, meaning, essentially, that anyone who showed up at 8:30 got to watch 10 pretty lousy fights. But if you tired of ogling Caroline Kennedy, Telly Savalas and Dick Gregory, you could always go ask Joe Dimaggio, Evel Knievel, or Pearl Bailey for an autograph…
The title fight was hardly an artistic masterpiece – nor, for that matter, would it have been exactly a stunning triumph for Norton even had he won. It was simply a question of being less ineffectual.
After an aggressive Ali clearly won the first round, he lapsed into near-submissiveness as he clowned and toyed, losing, by most accounts, every one of the next five in the process.
A veteran boxing writer turned to me at that point and said, “This reminds me of the first Frazier fight. He’s digging himself into a hole with all this playing around.”
Ali had taunted Norton verbally in the early rounds, connecting at least once with a barb that enrage the challenger. In the sixth he fell into the “rope-a-dope” tactic that he’s used so effectively against Foreman in Africa, only instead of at least occasionally punching out of the position, he merely lay back against the ropes and let Norton pummel at his body – without much success, but then, since they were the only punches being thrown, Norton won the round.
Ali decisively won the seventh, Norton the eight, and Ali, abandoning his announced strategy, began to dance and capture the next three, without much dispute. The ensuing rounds were at least even enough that after 14, the Phoenix card had the fight 6-6-2, both judges scored it 7-7, and referee Arthur Mercante had it 7-6-1, Ali.
It should be noted that with a couple of exceptions – Norton’s big fifth round; Ali’s seventh – none of the rounds was particularly decisive. In most cases, the winner was awarded a round because somebody had to win it, and in the absence of any crucial blows more subtle factors were relied upon. And so it went with the 15th: I thought Norton won the round. He didn’t win it by much, but then neither fighter won many rounds by much.