Ken Norton’s camp chose a good consigliere to sit with the boxer before he took to the ring to defeat Muhammad Ali 50 years ago tonight.
The Illinois heavyweight had sometimes played the role of sparring partner for Joe Frazier and now it was Frazier’s turn to help Norton who was a relatively heavy underdog that day in San Diego.
Frazier, famously the first to stop Ali as a pro in an all-time classic billed as the “Fight of the Century” at the Garden just over two years prior, was at pains to urge Norton to ignore the barbs and boasts; “Don’t listen to him. He’ll play games with you, but you just take care of business. OK?”
The advice helped because Norton joined Frazier as the only two boxers to beat Ali in his prime, two of five in total. It was a peak career moment for the former and the almost 12,000 lucky enough to crowd into the Southern California arena ended up witnessing one of the great sports shocks of that era.
Ali was approaching 31 and Norton was three years his junior but ultimately it was their contrasting preparations which would lead to a split decision, helped in no small part by the fact that the winner broke Ali’s jaw early in the bout.
Frazier hated sparring with Norton. Their sessions would draw in a sizable gathering of knowledgeable boxing folk who thrilled in watching their intense two- and three-round practice battles, more than enough punishment for Frazier to take and always enough for him to contemplate calling out sick to avoid the hassle.
Norton experimented with hypnotism and planned to a tee where his eyes would be both before and during the fight. His gaze would fix on the canvas during the ring walk and on his opponents’ pectoral muscles while they fought, all the better to see the flinch before the wind-up, a split second warning to help him glean every edge possible.
Frazier’s advice clicked as their gloves touched. Norton was ready for All’s stare and the way he bit his bottom lip with his upper teeth. He kept his head down, for the most part, and ignored the ritual.
Frazier famously let Ali get to him and who better to program a fighter into how he could dig himself out of that psychological hole.
Norton claims the trash talking stopped in that third round, the one where he was supposed to fall. He told his trainer Eddie Futch, “Boss, I can beat this dude.” “You can do it if you do as you’re told,” Futch shot back.