Sunday, March 31, 2013

Jaw Breaker

For nearly 40 years, ABC's Wide World of Sports was a fixture on Saturday afternoons.

Its mission was really twofold. Ostensibly, I believe it began its existence as a catch–all for offbeat sports that were rarely, if ever, shown on the Big Three networks, but it also showed popular sports, primarily individual competitions, like boxing or figure skating or gymnastics.

As such, it filled a niche in those days before cable.

Everyone knew the intro in which the narrator spoke of "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

As a boy, I often watched Wide World of Sports. The sports it showed really were off the wall most of the time, but, once in awhile, there was some good mainstream sports event on the program.

Such was the case 40 years ago today.

I don't remember much about that day except that my parents went somewhere that afternoon — they probably went to Little Rock to see a movie and have dinner — and a young couple had been hired to look after my brother and me.

As a college professor, my father often recruited his students to look after us when he took my mother out. My memory was that one, if not both, of the young people who came over that day had been in at least one of his classes.

Anyway, as I recall, the four of us started playing a board game of some kind after my parents left. Then, an hour or so later, the young man suggested that we watch Wide World of Sports. Muhammad Ali, who was only two years removed from his first fight with Joe Frazier, was to fight Ken Norton that afternoon.

That was fine with me.

I don't recall if I had ever seen Ali fight live before, but I had seen him on TV. Interviews. Fight highlights. That sort of thing. I liked him. He always seemed to be symbolic of the era in which he competed.

On this occasion, I got to see him fight — impressively, too, even though he didn't win.

It was a competitive fight, one that Ali lost in a split decision. It went the scheduled 12 rounds, and, after the fight had been awarded to Norton, it was revealed that Ali's jaw had been broken at some point. Norton has always contended that it happened near the end of the fight, probably in the 11th round. Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, insisted it was earlier.

Ali and Norton fought two more times. Ali won both — even though some observers will tell you they thought Norton actually won their last fight in 1976 — when Ali was heavyweight champion for the second time. If Norton had won on that day, he would have been heavyweight champ.

As it was, Norton did join that elite club of men who have been heavyweight champion. The title was awarded to him retroactively a couple of years later — after Ali had lost his title to Leon Spinks in early 1978. The crown did not remain on his head for long. In his first title defense, Norton was defeated in a very tight decision against Larry Holmes.

On this day 40 years ago, Norton was only the second professional fighter to defeat Ali (Joe Frazier was the other).

Talk about an exclusive club.

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