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Action Replay: the night Ali was brought back down to earth

Our weekly retrospective series takes a look back at the heavyweight bout between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton on March 31 1973.

Image: RHS/AP/Press Association Images

FOR A BRIEF moment on March 31 1973, time stood still for Muhammad Ali.

Defeat was an unusual phenomenon, one which he had experienced only once before as a professional boxer – in March 1971 when he was beaten by “Smokin’” Joe Frazier.

In the two years which followed, the man who had the audacity to proclaim himself “The Greatest” did everything in his power to restore that image, to convince his public – and more importantly to convince himself – that he was still the most fearsome fighter the world had ever seen.

There was only one way to do that and that was to start winning fights again. Intelligently, he began to pick his battles, allowing himself to build up a head of steam by stringing together win after win.

Ken Norton was supposed to be little more than another notch on the road to redemption.

After all, Norton was hardly a bum, but he was nowhere near as good as Ali. He’d never even fought anyone of note, let alone beaten them. In fact, as remuneration for his previous fight against a little-known boxer named Charlie Reno, he’d received a purse of just $300. Pocket money for Ali.

Naturally, Ali was unconcerned by the prospect of putting his NABF heavyweight title on the line, confident that home advantage would be cold comfort to his opponent when he eventually picked himself up off the mat.

The history books show that that wasn’t quite how it panned out in the San Diego Sports Arena that night. Norton became only the second man to defeat Ali, winning a split decision on the judges cards after both fighters had resolutely slugged it out to the final bell.


Was this the end of the road for Ali? It seemed so, according to journalist Howard Cosell who had been there that night:

So many of Ali’s fights had incredible symbolism, and here it was again. Ken Norton, former marine against the draft dodger in San Diego, a conservative naval town. It seemed Ali would never get his title back.

If Ali’s loss was surprising, the narrative which he subsequently spun out of the fragments of defeat hardly was. As medics wired together his fractured jaw, the 31-year-old explained how he hadn’t felt an ounce of pain after he was struck by Norton’s straight right in the second round.

Second round? Surveying the severity of the break, doctors couldn’t believe that Ali had fought on for ten further rounds. Neither could Norton, claiming that he had only landed the decisive punch as the final seconds of the closing round ticked away.

It was, in essence, typical Ali. Even in defeat, he claimed to have been bigger, better and badder than any boxer to have ever lost a fight before. There was no disgrace in losing in the manner which he did, no damaged reputation to repair.

There was, however, the little matter of Ali’s wounded pride – but that could be sorted without too much difficulty. He may have had bones to pick with a number of other fighters but they could wait until he had redeemed himself against Norton.

The rematch was scheduled to take place six months later. Ali may have been coming into the fight as the challenger but he had lost none of the swagger and braggadocio that had defined his reign as a champ.

You are all invited to the dance on September 10. Come see Muhammad Ali in concert!

My partner’s gonna be Ken Norton, and I’m gonna dance the night away. And when I dance, everybody’s in trouble!

He may have been beaten, but “The Greatest” had no intention of going anywhere just yet.

This Week in Sports History

  • West Indian cricketer Garfield Sobers makes his test debut against England at the age of 19, taking 4/75 in England’s first innings (30 March 1954).
  • Red Rum wins the first of his three victories at the Aintree Grand National (30 March 1973).
  • Wayne Gretzky becomes the first teenager to score more than 50 goals in a single season of ice-hockey (2 April 1980).
  • The Baltimore Colts relocate to Indianapolis in the middle of the night following a dispute between the owners and the city’s authorities (29 March 1984).

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Niall Kelly

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