Thrice As Nice: Ali-Norton

11/7/2011 - Boxing
Ken Norton lost two of his three fights against Muhammad Ali, but all were closely contested. AP Photos

To mark the third fight in the rivalry between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez on Saturday, every day this week ESPN.com will look back on another memorable boxing trilogy. There have been many in the sport's history, of course, and we don't claim that the five we will review are necessarily the greatest. (If you want one man's version of the best, here is a top-10 list from 2006.) But each of the selected three-bout series has some particular relevance to the Pacquiao-Marquez trilogy that makes it worth celebrating.

Muhammad Ali versus Ken Norton
March 31, 1973: San Diego Sports Arena, San Diego
Sept. 10, 1973: The Forum, Inglewood, Calif.
Sept. 28, 1976: Yankee Stadium, New York

This was not, it is safe to say, a classic of the genre. But the tightness of the verdict in all three outings reflects the closeness of the opening two contests between Pacquiao and Marquez, and left Norton wondering how things might have been different had he been given the judges' nod in more than one of the three, as he believed he should have been. Marquez issued a similar refrain recently when he lamented that "To have won those two fights would put me where Pacquiao is now."

That isn't necessarily the case, of course, no more than Norton ever would have supplanted Ali. But the Ali-Norton trilogy is also the most frequently cited example of an old boxing truth: that no matter how good a fighter is, there is almost always somebody out there who has his number, someone who will always give him fits. With Pacquiao, it has been Marquez; with Ali, it was Norton. In the words of Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, "With that lurching, herky-jerky, splay-footed movement of his, you just couldn't time him."

Norton broke Ali's jaw in the second round of their first fight, but Ali refused Dundee's entreaties to halt the contest. Instead, he battled on, only to lose a close split decision, the second defeat of his career. There were those who thought Ali's career was effectively over: "It was the end of the road, as far as I could see," Howard Cosell opined.

Ali hyped those doubts for the rematch. "Is he still the fastest and most beautiful man in the world?" he asked rhetorically of himself. "Or is he growing old? I took a nobody and created a monster." Ali, in better shape than he was for the first fight, opened an early points lead, but the powerful Norton hauled himself back into the contest. Ali dug in his toes in the final round, outslugging his opponent to win the decision -- which, again, was split.

Ali had regained his championship when he and Norton fought the decider at Yankee Stadium, against the backdrop of an NYPD strike that, according to promoter Bob Arum, so affected the sense of public safety that only eight walk-up tickets were sold on the night of the fight. Again, the contest was close -- so close that two judges had it dead even going into the 15th and final round. Ali closed the show strongly to win a unanimous decision, even though, according to Dundee, Ali believed he had lost.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.