Despite gaining revenge, Ali was tested to his very limits by Norton in their September 1973 rematch. Photo from The Ring archive
On Sept. 10, 1973, Muhammad Ali won a hard-fought, razor-close 12-round split decision over Ken Norton at the Forum in Inglewood, California. With scoring on a rounds basis, one judge scored 6-5-1 for Norton, but was overruled by tallies of 7-5 and 6-5-1.
Five months earlier, Norton had scored a split decision win over Ali in San Diego. The ex-marine followed trainer Eddie Futch’s game plan to perfection, matching Ali’s jab and punishing the body at every opportunity. Breaking The Greatest’s jaw was icing on the cake.
Following a period of convalescing, Ali claimed that Norton had caught him ill-prepared and vowed to avenge the loss. In his defense, the former champ had weighed 221 pounds for the first fight and appeared to be carrying excess weight. Broken jaw and out of shape? Prevailing wisdom was that Norton’s victory had been a fluke.
There was a big surprise coming.
Having dropped down to 212 pounds – his lightest weight since halting Oscar Bonavena in December 1970 – Ali dazzled early in the Norton rematch. The jab was accurate, he controlled distance, and those dancing feet brought back memories of his sixties heyday. However, Norton was constantly applying pressure and Ali’s movement had slowed by the midway point.
The Norton jab began to score. Body shots landed with an audible thud. Pulverizing left hooks and over hand rights dazed the ex-champ. The gap in the scoring was tightening and Ali needed a big finish to secure the win.
Drawing on all his resources, Ali had both the conditioning and the will power to dig deep. He more than matched Norton down the stretch and just managed to pull out the victory.
“Ken Norton was tough both times we fought,” acknowledged Ali in a 1975 interview with The Ring. “He broke my jaw in the first one, which I wasn’t in condition for. The second time, in Los Angeles, I was ready and won the early rounds but had to pull a split decision out in the last round.
“Norton’s strength and jerky rhythm throws me off, and like [Joe] Frazier, will always be a tough one for me to conquer.”
He was absolutely right. In a September 1976 rubber match, Ali was deemed very fortunate to retain his heavyweight championship via 15-round unanimous decision in New York.