WITH the world reeling from George Foreman’s stunning victory over Joe Frazier, 31-year-old Muhammad Ali opted to stay busy and signed to fight ninth-ranked, but largely unknown, Ken Norton on March 31, 1973.
But the San Diego fight, expected to be another routine win on the braggart’s comeback trail, upset the heavyweight order even further.
Ali entered the ring wearing a pristine jewel encrusted robe, a gift from Elvis Presley. He would never wear it again.
A jolting right snapped his jaw in the opening round; pain hurtled through every nerve in his body. He fought for a further 11 rounds, lasting 33 gruelling minutes, as the injury worsened.
Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, tried to haul his fighter out of combat after the second round but his pride, and desire for victory, rejected surrender. After 12 give-and-take stanzas, Norton won a split decision. Ali’s wife Belinda and advisor Bundini Brown sobbed as their brave hero exited the ring.
He went straight to hospital after the upset and underwent a 90-minute operation to repair his jaw.
“I personally don’t understand how he could have gone 11 rounds with that much pain,” said Dr Manchester who performed the surgery. “It was a very bad break. The bone which was broken had three or four jagged edges. The edges kept poking into his cheek and into his mouth.”
Some suggested that the loss should spell the end for Ali, that retirement was his best route. A reporter shared that view to Dundee.
“I think you’re a jerk,” was Angelo’s reply.
Ali, of course, would win the rematch – another tight affair – before embarking on that epic adventure against George Foreman.