Putting it another way, had the pivotal 15th existed independently as, say, the first round, not the slightest doubt exists in my mind that the same troika of officials who gave the round unanimously to Ali would have score it in Norton’s favor – or at the very least declared it even.
A fairly convincing majority of the press contingent believed Norton to have won both the round and the fight. (And for his part, Norton obviously thought so, too. At the final bell he had jubilantly leapt into the arms of his handlers, a wide victory smile on his face.)
It has been nearly 40 years since a reigning champion has been dethroned by a decision. This fact was pretty obviously on the minds of the only three people whose opinions counted in the matter – Mercante and the judges, Harold Lederman and Barney Smith. All three gave the round to Ali. The theory supposedly holds that to take a title away from a champion on a decision, the decision had damned well better be a clear-cut one, and this whole fight had been fraught with ambiguities.
A possible corollary to the story was advanced afterward by the former champion Joe Frazier – who maintained that “Norton won the fight, 10 rounds to five.” The judges, he explained, “hear all this noise from the crowd, and sure, they think about it.” (During the final round, the Beautiful People in the $200 seats – whose voices were most audible from ringside – were overwhelmingly vocal fro Ali, although many of them were screaming from the conviction that Ali was so hopelessly be hind that only a 15th-round knockout would save him. In any case, Frazier suggested, the sum effect is likely to influence – if not intimidate -- a judges decision under the circumstances.)
If the decision was unanimous, the particulars were not. The issue was sufficiently clouded that, for instance, among the voting triumvirate, at least one official awarded Norton each of the nine separate rounds.
A few of us were discussing the outcome with Joe Frazier when Norton and his entourage hurried by us in the runway. Norton was unashamedly crying like a baby.
There was less than unrestrained glee in the Ali camp. While the Champ himself was boasting of his “victory,” he was less than convincing, and as each of them filed into the dressing room, Angelo Dundee, his brother Chris, Ali’s security chief Gene Kilroy and Ali’s father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., all looked downright morose.
Norton, probably more the victim of an unjust tradition than anything else, was equally subdued once he’d composed himself. A slight contusion under his right eye was the only sign of physical combat borne by either fighter.
“I thought I won the last round anyway,” he replied. “But, no, I had no idea that the whole fight would hinge on it. I thought I was so far ahead that all I really had to do was to stay on my feet in the 15th, but that still didn’t mean I was going to give him the round. I don’t think he won it. And I certainly don’t think I lost it…
“I said before, remember, that I didn’t think they’d give it to me if it came to a decision,” he added with a note of resignation.
Which was all, sadly, too true. While the issue of whether or not Muhammad Ali, the Six Million Dollar Man, should have won or not may be debated for eternity, no one will ever accuse Ken Norton of losing it.