By Kevin “The Voice” Kincade
So many talented fighters, so little time, or so it seemed. After defeating Shavers, Ali had effectively beaten all established challengers in front of him, while a younger generation, the next crop of heavyweights loomed in the distance, not quite ready for a shot at the big time. Still, there was unfinished business afoot. Two of his defenses from the previous year, ended in controversy: his 15 Round decision in April of ’76 over Jimmy Young and his 15 Round decision in September of that year over Ken Norton.
Fans, pundits, and sanctioning bodies all agreed that if he wasn’t going to retire, he owed both men rematches. Ali had said no way was he going to fight both Jimmy Young and Ken Norton. He was 35 going on 36, some would say going on 40; the well was almost dry. He suggested that if Young and Norton fought each other, he would grant the winner a rematch. Midway through 1977, the WBC thought that was a good idea and set the wheels in motion.
Young had followed up his impressive showing against the champ with a couple of wins against top flight contenders to solidify his place in line. First, he’d faced and easily outpointed Ron Lyle for the second time in November of ’76 and followed that performance up four months later with a brilliant display of heart and counterpunching against George Foreman, sending the former World Champ into retirement. Young didn’t have what you would call a “crowd-pleasing” style; but it was effective. The controversy surrounding his loss to Ali was no fluke. His wins over Lyle and Foreman proved it. He was a bonafied top contender and deserved another shot at the throne.
Norton, winner of the Napoleon Hill Award for positive thinking in 1973, was the embodiment of mind over matter. A loss like the one he suffered to Foreman in 1974 would have set many fighters back, broken many a fighter’s confidence in themselves and their abilities. Not Norton.
He lived by the words and philosophy of Napoleon Hill and credited these words from Hill’s book, “Think and Grow Rich” for his victory over Ali in their first bout: “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man, but sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.”
Ken Norton kept believing in himself after the loss to Foreman and turned in one of the most impressive victories of his career in dismantling Jerry Quarry’s comeback in 5 Rounds in March of ’75. He followed that up by warring with the only other man to stop him, Jose Luis Garcia, stopping him also in 5 and sending him into retirement. All of this culminated with his much anticipated third bout with Ali in September of ’76; a tactical battle in Yankee Stadium which seemingly everybody but the three men whose opinion mattered most, thought he won. Norton was so heartbroken he’d wept in his corner.
Ali had announced his retirement after the Norton bout; but at the beginning of 1977, it became apparent that he wasn’t ready to leave the ring just yet, so there was hope for vindication. Adding an exclamation point to his worthiness for a rematch, to say nothing of increasing public demand for one, he destroyed heavyweight hopeful, Duane Bobick in 58 seconds. Only one man stood between him and his nemesis, George Foreman conqueror, Jimmy Young.
It has been said that, in boxing, styles make fights; and it is true, if all other factors are equal. Not only does a contrast or similarity of style determine how exciting or tactical or boring a fight is, it’s also curious to see which style can penetrate the other’s more effectively. If both men are in the best of shape and of similar size and skill, power and ability to take a punch, it will be a battle of whose style is better equipped to outbox their opponent. It’s almost reminiscent of those old “Black Belt Theater” movies which used to come on Saturday afternoon television where the Dragon Style takes on the Tiger style, or its Praying Mantis Vs Crane or Monkey Vs Drunken Boxing. Who has the best Kung Fu?
Ken Norton’s style was well known by the time this fight took place. It was an awkward-looking, crab-like defense with an offense based on him having his right foot in the bucket, dragging it, Quasimodo-like in pursuit of his opponent. His right hand was kept under his chin in order to both block incoming punches while his right arm protected his ribs or a quick dip would cause a hook to slide off his shoulder. His left crossed his chest, ready to snap up a jab or parry any incoming. Because of his foot positioning, he could rip a left hook with deliberate viciousness and launch an overhand right like a fastball right down the middle. His strength was that toe to toe, he could let his hands go with good power, while defending himself well. His weakness was in his mobility. He could move forward well; but side to side and backwards didn’t come easily. It presented such an unusual picture for his opponents, it could be argued that he won most of his fights because he perplexed them to death.
At his best, Jimmy was a defensive genius. His moves were quite often unconventional and always designed to frustrate his opponents and capitalize on the openings their vain lunges caused. He would take his adversary’s best weapon and turn it against them. When George Foreman attempted to muscle and maul him in Puerto Rico, Young just went with it, allowing Foreman to push him to the canvas, immediately getting the crowd and the referee on his side. Likewise, he knew Ali enjoyed countering his opponent’s mistakes, so, he made Ali chase him and at the moment when Ali seemed to have him pinned on the ropes, he ducked his whole upper body through the strands, like a professional wrestler, forcing the referee to break the action and Ali’s rhythm in the process.
With only 8 knockouts in 22 victories, Young had virtually no punching power; but he was very fast handed with lightning-like reflexes and his eyes saw everything. He was excellent at dictating the pace and could get you into position to aid him with his counters, which was undoubtedly a skill he had developed in the rough gym wars in his hometown of Philadelphia against much stronger opposition.
He didn’t outmuscle or outpunch his opponents, he outsmarted them. He’d trick you into throwing a shot which would leave you wide open and oft times, off balance. He was everywhere and nowhere at once. On the outside, he was just out of reach. On the inside he’d smother you or grab on. It was nearly impossible to look good against him because, win or lose, he was going to get you off your game; and because he was primarily a defensive-minded counterpuncher, his fights were very, very difficult to judge.
There are four fundamental attributes a judge is supposed to use to score a professional boxing match: effective aggressiveness, defense, ring generalship, and clean and hard punching. While these four holy grails are supposed to be considered equal in a boxing match, every judge has his favorite, for everyone is human. If both men seemed evenly matched, and a round is close, clean and hard punching usually takes the ace slot because it is the most easily noticed. So, if power is not in your make-up, you’d better be pretty good at the other three; and then, there’s no guarantee the three people whose opinions matter most will appreciate your artistry.
Another factor in any fight is the temperament and style of the referee. The man chosen to officiate over the Young-Norton contest was none other than Carlos Padilla, who had made a name for himself on the international boxing scene with his fine performance in the third Ali-Frazier fight two years before. Padilla was an action ref who didn’t like to be involved; but insisted on the fighters performing. He didn’t tolerate holding; but made sure that the fighter who didn’t want to be on the inside worked his way out. In the bout in Quezon City, this caused Ali to work far harder than he wanted to and gave the fans one for the ages, unlike their second fight, which is mostly remembered for Ali’s clinching.
Then there are the stakes. The more that is at stake in a boxing match, the greater the chance for a fighter to either up his game and rise to the occasion, or prove that he didn’t deserve to be there in the first place. Sometimes, even if a fighter does prove he belongs, the heartbreak of such a loss is a wound from which he never recovers and a promising young career vanishes into the ether from which it came.
By 1977, the Word Boxing Council (WBC) was beginning to feel its oats, so to speak. Of the two boxing organizations on the scene at that time, they were the youngest, having been formed in 1962, while the older World Boxing Association (WBA) could trace its roots back to the early 1920’s. The WBC had deemed this a 15-Round Title Elimination bout; and it certainly had the air of a championship fight. Because of the controversy surrounding his victories over both Young and Norton, they issued an edict that Muhammad Ali sign to fight the winner of this bout within 60 days. In essence, the WBC was saying that if Ali didn’t fight the winner, THIS was a Heavyweight Championship bout.
The irony is, when Ali was stripped by the WBA for signing to fight Sonny Liston in a rematch in 1965, rather than face # 1 Contender Ernie Terrell, the then-3 year old organization stayed with him. When both the WBA and the New York State Athletic Commission stripped Ali in 1967 for refusing induction into the Army, the still least-respected sanctioning body stood by him for three years without a fight until he retired in 1970 to allow Joe Frazier and Jimmy Ellis to fight for the “undisputed” heavyweight championship of the world. Now, they were demanding Ali defend against the winner of Norton Vs Young…..or else.
The pressure was on.
The first three rounds, one didn’t have to strain to see the look of confusion on Ken Norton’s face. Young was as slippery as an eel and didn’t hesitate to pop him whenever Norton took an unwise lunge. The jab, while not a battering ram, was peppering Kenny’s face anytime he got within range; and he also found Jimmy to have a quick and accurate right hand, which would punish him from outside for leaving his left down around his waist, as was his habit.
After three frustrating rounds, Norton came out from his corner with renewed purpose. His energy level, obviously, had kicked in another gear. Moving not just his head more; but doing whole body feints, he shucked his way inside and began working Jimmy’s body. Ken Norton was a thinking man’s fighter; but after three rounds of trying to outthink Jimmy Young moment to moment, he decided to focus on the battle plan he’d mapped out before the fight: kill the body, and the head will die. The body doesn’t move.
Young would occasionally make him pay with a right lead or a swift hook; but believing Young couldn’t hurt him, Norton gladly paid the price to get inside, if Jimmy was still there when he arrived, which wasn’t always. Then, in the fifth, a Norton hook caught Jimmy flush and he appeared to wilt. Images of his 7th Round near-disaster against Foreman flashed through the minds of onlookers; but it was towards the end of the stanza and he was able to survive.
On and on the fight progressed, first Norton double jabbing only to be tied up for his trouble, then Jimmy jabbing and sliding to his left, out of Norton’s range, taking advantage of Norton’s ever-lagging right foot, which limited his mobility. Norton’s punches would ricochet off of Jimmy’s shoulder now and sail over his head then. Jimmy’s three punch combos would then find nothing but Kenny’s arms in his mongoose-like defense, only for him to lash out with a wild swing which would miss Young by inches.
Midway through the bout, it was anybody’s fight; but the edge seemed to begin leaning slightly towards Norton. He hadn’t forgotten his game plan. Every time he got inside, he’d lash out with lefts and rights to Jimmy’s midriff as if his head didn’t exist. Young wasn’t giving him the counterpunching opportunities he wanted, so he took what he had in front of him, Jimmy’s body, which was sure to bring the hands down in the second half of the fight.
Strategy is everything in a bout such as this. While Norton had been extracting heavy punishment on Young’s body from Round 4 on, Jimmy had caused him to miss a lot as well, which was causing Kenny to tire. Then, in the 10th Round, Jimmy struck! A crisp right lead snapped Norton’s head around and the normally passive Young jumped on top of him, lashing out with two more well placed right hands. Knowing it was Norton’s instinct to fire back, Young stayed just out of range like a cobra, waiting for the missed incoming, and countered hard again with quickness which could seemingly come from nowhere, driving Norton into a corner and then, upon realizing Norton wasn’t there for the kill, and was possibly setting him up, back to chess.
By the start of the 11th, the crowd at Caesar’s Palace were in full appreciation of the artistry they were witnessing from both fighters. Young’s supporters began to chant his name, which was then countered by the Norton-supporter’s chants. It is a rare thing to see two big men battle with such technique. Heavyweights are known more often for their sock, rather than their skill; but Ken Norton and Jimmy Young were putting on a clinic. Their styles were both unconventional; but well matched. This was not going to be an easy night for the judges.
Jimmy Roundeau, Art Lurie, and Raymond Baldeyrou were going to have to use every ounce of their observational abilities, for the subtleties taking place in the ring were the fistic equivalent of a violent chess match. The flow of the fight seemed to have changed once again as Young was putting more and more mustard on his shots in the later rounds. The tempo appeared to have shifted once again to the man who took the early rounds. From Round 10 through Round 14, Jimmy Young’s quick hands and lateral movement kept him out of reach while putting him in position to hit Norton cleanly.
In the 15th, for the first half of the round, Ken Norton backed Young into the ropes and wailed on his body while Jimmy leaned against the strands almost listlessly, as if waiting for an alarm clock in his head, telling him to wake up once more. Just when it seemed that Norton was going to close the show strong, Jimmy began to fire once more, jolting Norton with rapid fire combinations and bringing a roar from the crowd. Down to the wire they fought until the final bell clanged, with a very serious World Champion watching from ringside.
In the end, the crowd was as split as the verdict. Judge Jimmy Rondeau had it 147-143 for Norton. Judge Art Lurie had it 144-142 for Jimmy Young and finally, Judge Raymond Baldevrou also tailed it 147-143 for Ken Norton picking up the split decision.
Boos were heard upon the reading of each card and one could hear a combination of cheers and jeers when the final tally was read. A similar sound had been heard in Yankee Stadium not so long ago when the Champion had retained his title as Norton stood crushed in his corner. This time, he raised his hands in triumph as Jimmy Young drank from the bitter cup of dejection.
In a battle of styles, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and a fighter’s fate is cast to the mercy of the judges. Boxing is the art of hitting without getting hit; but the power of opinion often lies in the power of the punch while defense and artistry are often found riding in the back of the bus.
Both Ken Norton and Jimmy Young gave a great account of themselves that night; but there can only be one winner. When you don’t have the ability to end it before the final bell, the decision lies in the hands of three observers at ringside. Who won depends on what you’re looking for in a fight, whether it be effective aggressiveness, defense, ring generalship, or clean and hard punching. On this night, for Ken Norton, his battle plan and body shots caught the eyes of those scoring the fight; but for Jimmy Young and his hit and don’t be hit style, two of three judges had no mercy.Contact the Feature Writers