The real action was outside the Stadium
While Ali and Norton battled, the city of New York was fighting for its own survival
The last time they had boxing at Yankee Stadium, on Sept. 28, 1976, Muhammad Ali was the headliner, 34 years old and staring smack-dab into a divorce. His opponent, the pesky and tough-minded Ken Norton, who in two previous fights had made Ali look mortal, felt the third time was going to be his charm.
On Saturday, boxing will again take center stage in the new version of "The House That Ruth Built". This time the names are not as big and the fight game is not what it used to be, but when former welterweight champion Miguel Cotto takes on the Brooklyn-based rabbi-in-training Yuri Foreman, there will be plenty of storylines to follow.
Can Cotto, the great Puerto Rican, show he still has something in the tank? Will Foreman, a champion at junior middleweight (154 pounds), prove he is a legit titleholder? Can Yankee Stadium prove to be enough of an attraction to draw the stars to sit ringside?
Yes, more has changed than has stayed the same since Ali and Norton wrapped up their trilogy; boxing, the sport of kings, hasn't aged all that gracefully. The sport has receded into niche status with more average Joes able to name their Congressional reps than the heavyweight champion of the world. (It's Vitaly Klitschko, by the way.) But the changes aren't all of the lamentable variety. The New York City of 2010 is no punch-drunk no-hoper, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, one bad blackout or serial killer away from driving the remaining die-hards to the suburbs.
One thing we can guarantee is that the Foreman-Cotto fight at the Stadium won't have the same vibe as the 1976 event. We aren't referring to the main event, which was a dud, sadly lacking in drama and urgency. No, that Ali-Norton bout will be recalled more for what went down outside the Stadium, where off duty cops staging a work action heard and saw no evil as rampaging punks ricocheted around, snatching purses, chains and even reporters' typewriters.
Bob Arum, who put together the 1976 show, plus Ken Norton, and several other boxing insiders who were there in 1976 all recall a night of chaos. New York City was in dire need of a whiff of smelling salts. Ali seemed to be ready to hang'em up. He basically threatened to retire after every fight leading up to his third battle with Norton. Bicentennial Ali was akin to say, Frank Sinatra in 1981, with the toupee that stood out a bit too much, a showstopper who didn't even try to hit those high notes that he made look so easy a decade before, but still commanded attention because he could put fannies in the seats.
Ali was just a year past his Thrilla in Manilla, his for-the-ages clash with Joe Frazier in which he scored a 14th round TKO and accelerated the depletion of his once bountiful reserve of reflexes and stamina. The Greatest of All Time had looked less than that while engaging in check-cashing exercises against B- and C-level opponents Jean-Pierre Coopman, Jimmy Young and Richard Dunn. Yes, Ali's halo had dimmed noticeably and irrevocably, but he'd trained his tail off for this one, and was determined to do more than look pretty against the man who had broken his jaw and handed him his second loss, via split decision in March 1973.
Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger was on site for Ali-Norton III, and he knew Norton's style would again prove tricky for the GOAT.
"Norton had trouble with tremendous punchers, Ali was not a tremendous puncher," Izenberg says. "Many figured Ali should win, but at that point, I thought he should have ended it after the third Frazier fight."
Both boxers were on message going in to the fight, with Ali fully cognizant that he needed to bring his A-game. Norton jazzed up with the confidence that came with being right there with Ali for 24 rounds already, was looking for redemption and acceptance. So neither man paid much attention to the storm clouds that were massing over the Bronx in the days preceding the bout. "We had no idea that stuff was going on outside," says 88-year-old Angelo Dundee, Ali's longtime trainer. "That stuff never bothered Muhammad anyway."
That stuff was city residents living at a time of degradation of the five boroughs. New York City circa September 1976 had no reason to be hopeful. The Big Apple's coffers were barer than Sinatra's pate, and bankruptcy wasn't off the table. A year earlier, President Gerald Ford gave a speech denying Federal money to help the city. The Oct. 30, 1975 New York Daily News summed up the talk with the headline "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD".
Ford's stance was the city should get leaner and meaner. Taking heed to the President's call, New York government leaders acted swiftly to curb wayward spending. The President came through with an aid package to semi-invigorate the down-on-its-luck Big Apple. But on the night of September 28, 1976, the vibe in the air wasn't of optimism, or even cautious hopefulness. Outside Yankee Stadium, it looked like a scene out of the cult classic movie "The Warriors". The wave of muggings and street crime took place in front of hundreds of off-duty cops who converged at the Stadium to protest work conditions.
"It was crazy, you've never seen anything like it," says Arum. "Pockets being picked, watches ripped off."
Arum had all kinds of problems promoting the fight.
During fight week, a young activist named Al Sharpton was calling for a boycott of the fight. Sharpton wasn't happy Ali chose to let a white man, Arum, promote the bout, instead of a black man, Don King. Arum didn't pay attention to Sharpton. Neither did Ali. But Arum was worried about security, because he'd heard rumors of an impending police strike or protest. He was receptive when the Nation of Islam offered members of its "Fruit of Islam" security force to stand guard outside the Stadium. NYPD officials nixed that idea, leaving Arum irked when he saw cops looking the other way as patrons got jumped. He was mystified when he counted the gate; 108 ticket sellers on fight night sold, he says, a total of 10 walk-up tickets. Though the attendance was announced at over 30,000, Arum says that was the pre-sale, and only about 19,000 brave souls actually made it into the Stadium.
So why were cops looking the other way while knuckleheads had a prolonged wilding session?
Jim Walsh was a cop in the Bronx's 48th Precinct, right next to the Stadium. He explains that cops had been promised raises that year. They never got them. Tired of being asked to work some shifts for no pay, the cops' morale was in the toilet. The city had laid off about 2,000 cops in 1975, and that still stung. "It was your life, and you felt like your heart was cruelly ripped right out of you," Walsh says.
So the cops decided to make a statement. "Guys had had it," Walsh said.
When some fight fans told cops they weren't in the right, Walsh said a couple off-duties responded physically. "The guys there in uniform were put in a bad position," he says. "But it was something that had to be done. Guys felt, 'You turned your back on us, we'll turn our back on you.'''
Izenberg , the longtime columnist, was appalled. He was present during arena riots in 1965 and 1967, after the Flash Elorde-Frankie Narvaez and Jose Torres-Dick Tiger fights at Madison Square Garden. He was in the Garden in 1996 for the Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota bout that ended in an ugly scene with both camps brawling in the ring. He said none of that compared to the 1976 ugliness. "It was a disgraceful evening," he says. "It was a disgrace for the cops. Though I do realize they have to feed their families, there had to be another way."
Izenberg said he saw people step off the subway, get a look at the scene around the Stadium, and get right back on the train to go back home. He saw goons get on pay phones and call for backup, gleefully relaying that cops were looking the other way. "It was anarchy," he says.
The violence outside the Stadium was of a more ferocious type than was shown inside.
"It was a [crappy] fight," Arum admits.
"It wasn't even a fight," Izenberg said.
Larry Merchant, the HBO analyst who back then was a sports columnist for the New York Post, gave the bout a lukewarm review. "Norton was a bad style matchup for Ali: big, strong, athletic. But it was not a great fight," he says. Dundee, with his eternally upbeat way, recalls that his guy and Norton gave the fans good bang for the buck. "The fight itself was exciting," he maintains.
Norton has in the past stated that he hadn't watched the bout, ever. That's what he told Thomas Hauser in an interview which appears in the 1991 Hauser book "Muhammad Ali: His LIfe and Times." But Norton told ESPNNewYork.com that he did in fact watch the third bout with Ali. "I watched it a year ago," he says. "I had me winning." Everyone did, at least the first half of the bout.
Before the 15th round, the Norton cornermen told their guy to stay out of trouble. Ali popped jabs while circling endlessly, as Norton plodded after him, unable or unwilling to cut off the ring and pressure the champion in earnest. He did wing more power shots in the round, and the case could be made that he deserved the nod in the final session, but just as the tie goes to the runner, the tie always went to Ali. That last round sealed the win for him: the judges had it 8-6, 8-7, 8-7, Ali.
"I was very upset at first," said Norton, who'll celebrate his 67th birthday on August 9. "But after I sat down and thought about it, boxing went as Ali went. At that time, Ali was boxing. Boxing wins if Ali wins. As for the controversial decision, I've forgotten it. I can't do anything to change it."
Getting out of the Stadium proved to be another hurdle. Izenberg was helped to his car, in an unlit garage, by some fans who recognized him from a New York TV show, "Sports Extra." Dundee says he breathed easier only because he and his wife, Helen, were protected by Ali's bodyguard, Pat Patterson, a former Chicago cop.
In the end, not one death was recorded at the Stadium, and considering the environment, that's worth a nod to a higher power. The main event wasn't a classic. But anyone who can say they saw Sinatra, even when his toupee was goofy and he was forgetting lines, or Ali when he stung like a mosquito more than a bee, can always say they witnessed history.
Looking deeper into the bright side, Izenberg considers that we've made great strides from 1976 to now, even if the sweet science can't boast a marquee icon like Ali was. "Some good came out of that night," he says. "The police took a look at themselves and the city learned a lesson. New York is different now. I don't think that could happen again."
Maybe Foreman-Cotto in Yankee Stadium doesn't roll off the tongue with the same majesty as Ali-Norton in Yankee Stadium. But, as Izenberg says: "Basically, back then, the fighters were better, the crowds were worse."