Ken Norton: A victim of tradition

Ali won, but his challenger didn’t lose
By GEORGE KIMBALL  |  November 14, 2006

This article originally appeared in the October 5, 1976 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

NEW YORK – Within seconds after the final bell had rung, ending the 15th round and the fight, a group of us abandoned our ringside position and attempted to make our way toward the run-ways and the sanctuary of the dressing rooms. We could, we reasoned, hear the announcement of the decision – a decision most of us were fairly confident would go to Ken Norton -- over the public address system.  Smack dab in the middle of a crown whose behavior was unruly, if not downright riotous, did not seem the ideal place to be when that announcement came.

The crowd surged toward the ring and the splintering of the makeshift press tables and folding chairs was audible.  Several people toppled over, and at least one fistfight broke out five feet away from the spot where I stood, trapped on all sides by a swaying mass of humanity.  A momentary feeling of abject terror swept over me and then, just as the drone of the ring announcer’s voice came over the PA, I spotted and opening. As I ran fro daylight I could hear the verdict being ticked off “…eight rounds to seven, Ali…Ali eight rounds to seven…”

I reached the comparative safely to the Yankee dugout, where two uniformed guards blocked the entrance to the run-way as they checked for proper identification (in this case the possession of one of the red, white, or blue baseball caps that had been issued as press credentials).  Before me a smallish man wearing a gray suit found his passage clocked by the cops.

“I can’t let you past here without a hat,” said the policeman. 

“But you’ve got to,” the man implored “I’m one of the judges.”

A heartfelt crescendo of boos some 30,000 strong emanated from all three tiers of Yankee Stadium.  It was downright nasty.  The crowd continued to sway, to crunch, and in some cases to kick and fight back.  Menacing objects flew through the air.

“I think,” I nodded pleadingly at the cop with more than a touch of concern in y demeanor, “you’d better let him through.”

No one was very happy after Tuesday night’s affair.  Certainly not Ken Norton, who felt, with considerable justification, that he had been jobbed on the spot out of the heavy weight championship. (“I know I beat him.  You know I beat him.  Deep down, I think even he knows I won it.”)

While modesty would never permit Muhammad Ali to agree with the observation, there were subtle indications that that was precisely what he thought.  Even if one grants the dubious proposition that the verdict was correct (as narrow as the decision might have been, it was still unanimous), Ali’s performance was at the very best sufficiently uninspiring to promote serious discussion of immediate retirement among Ali and his advisors.

And clearly the promoters – Madison Square Garden and Top Rank, Inc. – were less than pleased by both the size and the behavior o f the crowd.  The exorbitant prices (ranging from $200 for “ringside” seats – meaning anywhere o the filed itself –- to $25 for the cheapies) had combined with poor viewing accessibility from many seats to leave 18,000 of the 60,000 stadium tickets unsold.  (I picked up a pair of $50 tickets for a friend on Monday, only to discover that they were situated high in the upper deck God knows where the $25 seats were.)

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Related: Flashbacks: October 6, 2006, Can even the Greatest be free of the past?, The return of trash talking, More more >
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