When Muhammad Ali returned to boxing in 1970 after a forced three-year layoff from the sport, he looked to pick up where he’d left off. He beat Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, both by stoppage, before running into Joe Frazier in Mar. 1971 at Madison Square Garden, losing a truly legendary fight, still maybe the true biggest fight ever in terms of the impact it had on the culture at large at its time.
After losing to Frazier, Ali rattled off 10 straight wins between July 1971 and Feb. 1973. Just a month after that last win over Joe Bugner in Las Vegas, which was a 12-round decision, Ali was matched with once-beaten Ken Norton in San Diego.
The 29-year-old Norton (29-1, 23 KO at the time) was the huge underdog against the 31-year-old Ali (41-1, 31 KO). He was thought to be just another guy who would lose to the great Ali, who would soon move on to a fight with George Foreman.
But it was clear quickly to viewers in the arena and live on ABC that his awkward style was going to give Ali fits, and that his power was nothing to mess around with, as he broke Ali’s jaw in the opening round. As the fight progressed, it was obvious early success was no fluke — this was a for real bad matchup for Muhammad. Firing jabs from the waist and working with a herky-jerky movement, Norton was a nightmare for Ali.
In the end, Norton came away with a split decision victory over 12 rounds, and commentators were calling for Ali to retire. setting the two up to meet again in Sept. 1973 and Sept. 1976. Ali won both, but the third fight was particularly controversial, and even Muhammad didn’t feel he’d won it. He said he never wanted to fight Norton again.
This first fight set that tone. Style-wise, Norton just had Ali’s number, plain and simple. It’s not that Ali couldn’t do anything against Norton, but he couldn’t be Ali against Norton, and Norton wound up being the toughest opponent of his career, which is saying quite a lot indeed.