It was one of the biggest upsets in heavyweight history.
On March 31, 1973, the then-unheralded Ken Norton scored a stunning 12-round split decision victory over Muhammad Ali at the San Diego Sports Arena, shattering the great ex-champ’s jaw and, for many, ending all hope. he had to regain the title.
Norton, best known for being a sparring partner of Joe Frazier, was a 29-1 contender. However, nothing on the ex-Marine’s resume suggested he beat Ali, who was on a 10-game winning streak after his first loss to Frazier in March 1971.
Ali had come in heavy at 221 pounds. He had developed a bad habit of training up to competition level and it cost him against Norton. The Adonis-looking Californian, who was trained by Eddie Futch, was stylistically the stuff of nightmares. He could match Ali’s jab – a rarity – and his cross defense proved difficult for the former champion to penetrate.
When Ali’s jaw was broken in that fight, it was a subject of great speculation. Ali’s camp insisted it happened in the second round, a session his opponent won with explosive punches. Team Norton, however, were convinced Ali’s jaw was completely broken on the 12th and final lap, which the underdog completely dominated. There’s evidence on the original ABC show that Ali was struggling earlier than that.
Either way, Norton did the damage with punches and the night was his.