Commentary

A night to remember in the Bronx

For this 19-year-old, Ali-Norton III was an unforgettable memory, not a scary one

Updated: June 3, 2010, 7:33 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

There hasn't been a boxing match at Yankee Stadium since Sept. 28, 1976, and in the ensuing 34 years two great myths have been perpetuated to the point that they are now accepted as indisputable fact.

The first is that the Stadium and its environs were "Death Wish" come to life, a jungle beset by marauding bands of hoodlums and muggers that made the area inside the ropes the only truly safe place to be.

The second is that the victim of most heinous crime of the night was none other than Ken Norton.

It makes a great story for the people telling it, at least one of whom, Bob Arum, has a great interest in selling tickets to the next fight at Yankee Stadium which happens Saturday night. Arum was the promoter behind Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton III fight at the stadium.

[+] EnlargeAli-Norton 1976
AP PhotoNo matter who you talk to, the Ali-Norton fight at Yankee Stadium was an night no one will forget.

This time around, Arum doesn't have Norton and he certainly doesn't have Ali, the headliner that frigid night in Fear City, but he does have a vivid imagination that might be playing a little fast and loose with the facts.

It also might be that great events, which Ali-Norton III most assuredly was, take on a life of their own as the decades pass, and each man is free to tell the story of them as he sees fit. I have no reason to doubt Arum when he says the New York Police Department strike that night created an atmosphere of chaos and terror in the South Bronx, reducing the walkup sale on fight night from the expected 10,000 to 10, as he told me last week at Gleason's Gym. (This week, he told another reporter the number of tickets sold on fight night was actually eight; by Saturday night, it may well be down to zero, or he may even have people turning back their ringside seats in sheer dread.)

Nor do I have any reason to doubt Jerry Izenberg, a dear friend, when he says his typewriter was stolen by thugs as he left the Stadium (a typewriter, for those of you raised on smartphones and PDAs, was a primitive writing device not unlike the Gutenberg printing press). Or Angelo Dundee, another cherished friend, when he says he and his lovely wife, Helen, needed bodyguards to get to their car.

Arum, Izenberg and Dundee are entitled to remember that night any way they wish. But I was there too that night and my experience could not have been more different. I had no idea that one day I would get paid to write about fights like this and talk about them on television, or that I would come to know three of the people in that ring -- Ali, referee Arthur Mercante and Norton conrnerman Eddie Futch -- and that the latter two would become close friends until the day they died.

And all these years later, I don't have a ticket stub or a program to commemorate it. All I have is the picture in my mind, every bit as vivid, I am sure, as Arum's or Dundee's

As a boxing-crazy 19-year-old about to enter my first New York Daily News Golden Gloves, I saved up the $27.50 to buy a seat in the upper deck. Then, like all teenagers who buy a cheap ticket but want an expensive view, my buddy and I moved down to the ringside section. There were no cops in the place, remember? We took great pride in the fact the seats we slipped into were several rows in front of Mick Jagger.

We took the subway up to the ballpark, and we took it home again. At no point did we see any incident that was remotely threatening, although our subway car home was packed chest-to-chest and I somehow found myself staring into the face, inches before me, of a handsome, smiling young man in a flashy warmup suit with an Olympic gold medal around his neck.

It was a man I would come to know quite well over the next decade but at the time knew only from television: Sugar Ray Leonard. The whole ride back we chatted about the fight. He, like me, thought Ali had won the fight. I remember saying that I believed he had won eight of the 15 rounds, and I had a pretty good view to back up my opinion.

I was close enough to see the vapor from the fighters' breath in the chilly night air. I was close enough to see that late in the fight, Ali's lips and the tip of his nose were reddened by the cold. I was close enough to know they were talking to each other all night, although not close enough to make out the words.

And I was close enough to see that all Norton really had were muscles.

Earlier today, I watched a tape of the fight for the first time since seeing it live. And guess what? Ali still won. Only this time, I gave him 9 rounds.

My overriding memory was of a great night and a rather disappointing fight, but what had seemed like a lackluster battle in 1976 looked a lot better this morning, especially compared to what is passed off as heavyweight championship boxing today.

The thing I remembered most strongly was how badly disappointed I was in Norton, how amateurishly he fought and how easily Ali was able to handle him during the points in the fight when he was active. As I recalled it, the fight was close for probably 10 rounds, and then Ali dominated what used to be called The Championship Rounds.

At points, the crowd booed, as Yankee Stadium crowds will, and vociferously disagreed with the decision. But you must recall that people go to prizefights to see history being made, and a heavyweight champion retaining his title on points rarely qualifies.

Yankee Stadium, of course had been the site of some of the greatest, most historic and controversial bouts in history -- from Joe Louis annihilating Max Schmeling in a fight that became a metaphor for World War II, to Rocky Marciano overcoming the gallant challenges of Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore, to Sugar Ray Robinson coming within three minutes of adding the light-heavyweight title to his collection only to collapse from heat exhaustion unable to go out for the 15th round against Joey Maxim.

Ali-Norton III hardly stands among those bouts, and odds are neither will Saturday night's junior middleweight title bout between Yuri Foreman and Miguel Cotto.

But it will be a huge event, as Yankee Stadium fights always are, and there will be two rabid fan bases in the house, one supporting the Belarusian-Israeli Orthodox Jew Foreman and the other the Puerto Rican-born Cotto.

I'll be at this one, too. Can't wait to hear the retelling of it all, 34 years from now.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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