By Lee Groves
When Yuri Foreman defends his WBA junior middleweight title against Miguel Cotto at the new Yankee Stadium on June 5, the venue will receive as much billing as the fighters.
That’s because the age of New York City ballpark fights ended after Muhammad Ali retained his world heavyweight championship by decisioning top contender Ken Norton more than three decades ago.
The evening of September 28, 1976 was one of confrontation, chaos and controversy. Inside the ropes, Ali and Norton waged war for the third and final time while outside the stadium striking NYPD officers used the fight as a platform for their pay demands as well as to show how an absence of their crowd control skills would impact a marquee event.
One man who experienced it all first-hand is Ed Schuyler, the Associated Press’ national boxing writer from 1970-2002 and the 1979 winner of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism from the Boxing Writers Association of America.
His work surely would have garnered more honors had he chose to pursue them, but Schuyler believed doing his job properly was reward enough.
"I never entered a writing contest in my life," the 75-year-old Schuyler said from his home in Bloomsburg, Pa., located 40 miles from Wilkes-Barre. "The AP entered some stuff for the sports editors’ competition but my job was to write an accurate story and to make deadline. That’s all I tried to do. Besides, it’s not about me; it’s about the fight, isn’t it?"
The man nicknamed "Fast Eddie" for his ability to pump out stories no matter how tight the deadline is scheduled to be in Canastota to receive one of his profession’s highest honors – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category.
His seasoned eyes have witnessed more than 300 championship fights at ringside and while he doesn’t rate Ali-Norton III as among the best fights he has covered, the events before, during and after were memorable just the same.
"One of the things I remember most was driving with Ali through the White Mountains in Arizona and he came to Show Low, Arizona where he trained," he said. "It was a town of 3,378 people that had only one traffic light and was 6,400 feet up. It was in the middle of nowhere, for Christ’s sake, and he decided to train there. Six writers drove to Phoenix to spend three days with him there.
“Then, he went to train at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills. Only Ali would do something like that and only Ali would get away with it."
Ali was such a quote machine that he was capable of leading reporters like a pugilistic Piped Piper. Because he filled notepads like Donald Trump fills bank vaults he always commanded the lion’s share of pre-fight attention.
"Like any other Ali fight, the talk before the fight was all Ali," Schuyler said. "Writers didn’t go to Norton looking for stories because all you had to do was show up on Ali’s doorstep and he’d give you everything you could want – everything. Ali was great at that kind of thing; he was a publicity man’s dream."
While Ali’s mouth spewed words like Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea, Norton and his team exuded an air of understated assurance.
"They were confident," Schuyler said. "Don’t forget that he had already beaten Ali and almost beat him again in the rematch. It wasn’t like ‘I can’t handle this guy.’ Ali tried to taunt him and say things to him like he did with most of his opponents but they didn’t have much effect on Norton."
One possible reason was Ali and Norton were fighters heading in different directions, at least in terms of recent form.
Since his "near death" experience in the "Thrilla in Manila" Ali had won three fights but hardly looked like his finely tuned self. He scored fifth round knockouts over the badly outclassed Jean-Pierre Coopman and Richard Dunn and a bloated 230-pound Ali looked horrible in capturing a hotly disputed unanimous decision over Jimmy Young.
"Ali fought three times in 1976 and two of them were non-fights," Schuyler said. "The Coopman fight was ridiculous and I scored the Jimmy Young fight for Young."
Schuyler believes, however, that the three bouts against non-punchers improved Ali’s chances of beating Norton because they gave him enough time to overcome the punishing effects of Manila.
"Had he fought Norton a little sooner the fight might have been different," he surmised. "Both Ali and Frazier should have retired after Manila. But he didn’t and fortunately for him, Young wasn’t a big banger and Coopman and Dunn were terrible. He had enough in the tank to beat Norton because he was a smarter fighter."
Conversely, the 33-year-old Norton was riding a wave of success.
Norton had won seven straight fights – all by knockout – since George Foreman blasted him out in his first title shot 2 ½ years earlier. He looked especially good in back-to-back fifth round stoppages against Jerry Quarry and Jose Luis Garcia, and the latter fight enabled him to avenge an eighth round KO loss five years previously.
Despite Ali’s decline, Norton’s surge and the challenger’s troublesome style, the defending champion was installed a solid 2-to-1 favorite.
As with Cotto-Foreman, the fact that Ali-Norton III was being held in Yankee Stadium was considered a novelty. The last heavyweight title fight staged at the venue saw Ingemar Johansson stop Floyd Patterson in June 1959 – more than 17 years earlier. The actions of the striking cops made getting to the stadium a monumental chore and threatened to hold down attendance.
"Preceding the fight, the police came out with pickets in hand, shouted at the top of their lungs, blew whistles, banged on drums and purposefully blocked traffic in front of Yankee Stadium," Earnie Shavers wrote in his book "Welcome to the Big Time."
According to Shavers, who stopped Henry Clark in two rounds on the undercard, Ali’s limousine was blocked from entering the property while a mob jumped on his front fender and rear hood. Because the driver was forced to inch the car forward Ali didn’t reach his dressing room until just 45 minutes before the fight.
"We all came uptown on buses provided by the promoters and they hustled us into the stadium," Schuyler recalled. "It was nasty. They were picketing outside and they were letting all these bums in. They weren’t being professional police officers in any sense of the word. A lot of non-New Yorkers wouldn’t have dared try to get to the fight through the subway."
More than 10,000 stormed into the unprotected stadium and once they gained entry they committed all sorts of vile acts on people and property. This, combined with the police’s inaction, had a profound impact on impulse ticket sales.
The official attendance was listed as 30,289, but according to an article penned by promoter Bob Arum in the Las Vegas Sun last September, only eight walk-up tickets were sold at the 108 booths the night of the fight.
"The real story of the fight was what was going on behind me because anything that happened during the fight was going on in the stands," Schuyler said. "I didn’t realize all the muggings that were going on and Joe Frazier’s car was damaged. Press row during the fight was OK but there was no real security that I can remember.
“After the fight they flooded press row and a few typewriters were stolen. I’m not sure about this, but I recall that somebody pulled a knife on Red Smith. My sports editor held a chair over my head while I dictated my story. It was nasty."
Still, Schuyler was able to maintain his focus.
"When you’re concentrating properly you’re not aware of anything else that was going on, just like fighters aren’t aware of their surroundings when they’re fighting," he said. "You’re just doing your job, that’s all."
Once Ali and Norton were in the ring, the champion did his best to pour on the psychology. When he wasn’t glaring at Norton he was leading chants of "Norton must fall" and windmilling his arm like an out-of-control helicopter blade.
"That was Ali," Schuyler said. "It wouldn’t have mattered who he was fighting. If he were fighting Joe Jones, Ali would have been shouting ‘Jones must fall.’ Bluster and Ali went hand in hand. But while he talked the talk he would walk the walk too."
And fight the fight. Ali surprised many by opening the bout flat-footed and landing several sharp rights to the face while Norton was content to survey from a distance.
"Norton wanted to see what Ali had left," Schuyler observed. "Ali was smart enough that he said, ‘OK, if you’re not attacking, I’ll attack.’ Ali knew the game inside the ring, how to play a situation and how to steal rounds. He was a great fighter, maybe not at the time, but he was good enough because who beat him?"
Not only did Ali fire jabs, he also jabbered. According to the closed-circuit broadcast team Ali repeatedly told Norton "is that all you got?" but Schuyler wasn’t close enough to the ring to confirm or deny.
"It was pretty noisy and the ring was so high, it was ridiculous," he said. "You’ve got to be close to hear that. Besides, it’s hard to catch what a fighter’s saying when they’re wearing mouthpieces. Remember when people said that Ray Mercer tried to bribe Jesse Ferguson? Listen, I had trouble understanding Mercer when he didn’t have a mouthpiece. What was he was going to do anyway? Go to the bank between rounds?"
After winning the first round handily, Ali spent the rest period leading the crowd in chants of "Norton must fall" instead of listening to Dundee while Norton stood in his corner with a blue robe draped over his shoulders, a practice he maintained for the entire fight. The prideful Ali, even when exhausted, also chose to stand because his ego couldn’t allow Norton to outdo him in any fashion.
Norton revved up his offense in the second as he jabbed to the body and slung overhand rights to the side of Ali’s head. One of them caused Ali to break into a shimmy, after which he covered up behind his elbows, forearms and gloves. Norton attacked Ali’s body with both hands and he spat out some verbal venom after sinking a pair of hooks to the liver.
The third saw Ali continue to rake Norton’s face with long right leads while the challenger whipped in overhand rights and body shots. Norton’s unrelenting pressure forced Ali to work every second and after absorbing a strong first-minute Ali rally in the fourth Norton stormed back when he backed the champion into a corner and whaled away with full-shouldered shots.
Norton continued to surge in the fifth and sixth rounds while Ali was content to cover up, lay on the ropes and wiggle his hips. Ali’s playfulness almost cost him dearly in the waning moments of the sixth when Norton’s knifing hook to the liver doubled Ali over.
"I was surprised any time Ali was in serious trouble," Schuyler said of Ali’s reaction to the body blow. "Ali was 34 with a lot of wars in his legs and he just was a good heavyweight with too much guts. Ken was a good banger, but not a great banger. He wasn’t a one-punch guy and Ali could take a hell of a shot. He got through a lot of fights that way."
After throwing a combined 30 punches in rounds five and six, Ali bore down more in the seventh and eighth but the inspired challenger continued to work over Ali’s flanks with ferocity and flushness.
Sensing he might be behind on the scorecards Ali turned back the clock – at least for a round-and-a-half – by showing everyone a slightly slower version of the float and sting. The tactic worked well as he limited Norton’s offense while sparking his own.
"Norton didn’t know how to cut the ring off against Ali," Schuyler observed. "Speed was never Norton’s game. Nobody gets stronger as a fight goes on, he might not get weak as fast. Norton was probably tired too because he was doing the chasing. Ali was a champion because he knew how to win and he expected to win."
In the 11th, a confident Norton tried to turn the tables on Ali by retreating to the ropes and teasing Ali while executing an exaggerated bob-and-weave. Schuyler thought Norton’s ploy was foolish because he chose to enter Ali’s world.
"When you play mind games with Ali you weren’t going to win," he said. "Ali was the greatest mind game player I’ve ever seen. He’s a con artist and when it came to one-upsmanship he was a Hall of Famer. Look at what he did to Joe Frazier. Ali could get anybody enraged but unlike Floyd Mayweather Jr. Ali had a charm that Mayweather does not possess. There is nothing charming about Mayweather’s act."
Though Norton continued to apply pressure throughout the championship rounds, Ali significantly upped his work rate and the two fighters took turns winning rounds. Ali’s speed and ring generalship earned him the 11th and 13th while Norton’s strength and pressure won him rounds 12 and 14.
"Norton was closing it big and at the end he landed some really good shots," Schuyler said.
With the fight’s outcome hanging in the balance entering the 15th, Ali summoned a last burst of energy to control the first two-and-a-half minutes only to have Norton rock Ali in the waning 15 seconds. At the bell a defiant Norton woofed at Ali before launching a wild celebration with his corner while the champion and his retinue appeared concerned and somber.
The jury of journalists used for the broadcast was split in opinion. The writers from the New York Times and the Philadelphia Daily News saw it 10-5 and 8-6-1 Norton while the London Daily Mirror scribe scored it 6-6-3.
Norton’s enthusiasm and Ali’s reserve proved to be ill placed, for judges Harold Lederman and Barney Smith saw Ali ahead eight rounds to seven while referee Arthur Mercante Sr. scored it 8-6-1 for the winner and still champion.
"When the fight ended Norton had a big smile because he thought he had finally become the champ," Schuyler said. "But when he left the ring he was in tears."
Those fans and reporters who weren’t in tears were shaking with anger. The outcry over the decision was such that CBS organized a panel of celebrity judges to score the bout as they watched the replay a week later.
Schuyler thought CBS’ idea was fatally flawed.
"It’s impossible to score a fight in which you already know the result," he said.
For the record, Schuyler scored the bout 9-6 Ali, and he did so without an ounce of doubt or regret.
"I don’t know what the controversy was about because I couldn’t see any," he declared. "Ali took the fight and Norton didn’t. Close? Yes. But close doesn’t count except in quakes. I’ve never, ever thought over the years that Norton might have won the fight. From where I sat, Ali dictated the pace with his jab and right hand. It was an even fight after eight rounds and then Ali took charge. Norton came forward, but you don’t get points just for coming forward. It was Ali’s fight and I have no qualms about the decision or the way I scored it."
A punch count conducted by this writer from the video revealed that while Ali threw more punches (709-635) Norton landed nearly 100 more blows (281-199) overall. Surprisingly, Norton landed more jabs (94-71) while Ali attempted more power shots (364-346).
However, Norton outlanded Ali in power shots 187-128, including an 84-5 bulge in connected body shots, which may account for why so many people thought Norton deserved the decision.
Schuyler believes Ali’s aura was vital not only to his drawing power but also with his ability to win close rounds – and eventually razor-thin decisions.
"Ali’s reputation was a weapon," Schuyler said. "A close round with Muhammad Ali was most often going to Muhammad Ali and that’s because judges and fans saw the Ali who beat Liston, the Ali of the 1960s who was the dancing master and the man who could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. They saw that Ali even though they weren’t looking at that Ali. Ali was no longer the Ali of his reputation.
"I don’t know why Norton decided to fight the way he did in the final round," he continued. "Maybe he thought he had the fight won. But when you fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, you never think that unless it’s like Mayweather-Mosley when the decision is so obvious. Norton is fighting Ali and he should have known that Ali is going to get the benefit of the doubt.
“If you’re fighting for the title you have to let it all hang out. Ali’s not going to knock him out in the 15th round but if he does, he does. Whether you lose by a decision or you lose by a knockout, you still lose. So you might as well go for it."
Ali’s ability to call upon an extra reserve when it counted allowed him to nip Norton at the wire for the second consecutive meeting. To Schuyler it was the ultimate manifestation of his greatness.
"Ali always sucked it up," he said. "He beat Norton in the second fight that way. Ali had me convinced that he dominated the last round but if anybody’s reputation helped him in fights it was Ali. He might not have been the aggressor, but Ali was aggressive in his own way because he hit people a lot. I never had the feeling that Ali stopped dictating how the fight was going to be fought."
By the time Schuyler filed his story and left the arena, the waves of chaos had already passed.
"It wasn’t bad by the time we were done an hour after the fight," he said. "The ring was set up around second base and even though there were more than 30,000 people there were still a lot of empty spaces in the ballpark."
For Schuyler, Ali-Norton III is remembered only because of the controversial decision and the place where it was fought.
"It was not a historic fight but it was historic in that it is probably the last heavyweight championship fight in a New York ballpark and the last fight in the original Yankee Stadium," he said. "It’s not a fight that comes up when people talk about great fights. It wasn’t a fight where you would rush to a bar downtown to rehash it. It was a decent fight but it was nothing to write home about."
Except when someone did it for a living like Schuyler.
Muhammad Ali was among the original class of IBHOF inductees in 1990 while Norton followed two years later. Schuyler, who wrote for The Sweet Science.com until 2005, will now join them.
These days, Schuyler is enjoying the fruits of his labor and plans to continue doing so for the rest of his life.
"I’m looking forward to being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in June, but after that I’m done – period," he said. "The Ali-Norton fight was an oddity then and the Foreman-Cotto fight will be an oddity now. This won’t mark the return of outdoor boxing, certainly not in the age of pay-per-view television.
“To me this is cute, nothing more."
E-mail Lee Groves at [email protected]