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The controversial decision that marked the third fight between heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton was the last title fight at Yankee Stadium in New York.
That was on September 28, 1976. On Saturday June 5, Sunday June 6 in Manila, boxing returns to the spanking new state-of-the-art Yankee Stadium where WBA junior middleweight champion Yuri Foreman defends his title against former WBO welterweight champion Miguel Cotto of Puerto Rico who lost his 147 pound title and the WBC’s “Diamond Belt” to pound-for-pound king and “Fighter of the Decade” Manny Pacquiao.
There are many intriguing questions about the fight and the possibilities especially after Cotto took a mauling at the hands of the Filipino phenomenon and lost by a 12th round TKO in a fight that many boxing writers felt should have been stopped a couple of rounds earlier.
How much that beating and a previous battering from Antonio Margarito who was suspended for one year after being found to have loaded his hand-wraps with a hardening substance in the Shane Mosley fight which Margarito lost, has affected Cotto remains to be seen.
Beyond that Foreman is much taller and a classic boxer who uses his reach to advantage as well as the ring.
HBO analyst Emmanuel Steward who trained Cotto for this fight believes the public will see a much sharper, mobile Cotto in what may well be a fight that could shape the future – if he has one – of Miguel Cotto.
Should he win and a possible Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr super-fight fail to push through because of the apparent intransigence of the Mayweather camp on the purse-split which is something that was recently introduced after the negotiations for a fight last May 1 collapsed on the issue of random drug tests.
Mayweather refused to accept a Pacquiao compromise of a 24 day cut-off and insisted on 14. Now that Pacquiao has agreed to a 14 day cutoff although the last time Mayweather was tested before the Shane Mosley fight was 18 days before, Mayweather is insisting that he is the bigger draw and wants a 60-40 split in his favor.
Of course while Mayweather-Mosley pay-per-view numbers were reported at 1.5 million compared to the Pacquiao-Clottey fight which was 700,000 there was a yawning difference between the challengers – Mosley who was the welterweight champion and rated behind Pacquiao in the Ring Magazine’s pound-for-pound rankings and Clottey who had been beaten in his previous fight by Cotto.
A fairer comparison would be the Pacquiao-Cotto fight last November which turned in 1.25 million PPV buys while the MGM Grand was sold out for the fight in contrast to Mayweather-Mosley which failed to sell out despite earlier claims by Golden Boy Promotions CEO that it was a sell-out and the fight would even reach 4 million pay-per-view buys. It was evident that the former Swiss banker got his numbers all wrong.
In an article by George Willis in the New York Post, Harold Lederman who will be an unofficial judge in the HBO broadcast team at the Yankees new ballpark in The Bronx recalls that he was one of the judges who scored the controversial fight between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton almost 34 years ago.
Lederman had the fight even after 14 rounds before giving Ali the 15th round, part of a unanimous decision that favored Ali. However, many fans and media who saw the bout thought Norton had won.
Lederman was quoted Willis as saying “It had to be one of the most controversial title fights in the history of heavyweight boxing. The fight was very close. It was one of those fights where Ali was giving away the first six or seven rounds, but he had the uncanny ability to know when to turn it on. I had it all even after 14 rounds, but Norton didn’t throw a punch in the 15th round until the final seconds when he landed a vicious left hook.”
Lederman added. “Ali had been jabbing him to death for about two minutes. It’s one of those things where you say, can one punch win a round? I didn’t think so.”
That fight was the last fight at the old Yankee Stadium. The 34-year drought ends Saturday night when Foreman, who lives in Brooklyn by way of Israel, makes his first title defense against Cotto, who is moving up to 154 pounds after holding titles at 140 and 147.
Willis notes that Lederman will be ringside scoring the bout for HBO, a less stressful job than he had three decades ago when his telephone “didn’t stop ringing for a month” after the fight.
The New York Post quoted Lederman stating, “I got calls from all over the world with people asking me why I scored the fight the way I scored it.” He said. “I knew it was 7-7 after 14, but Norton’s corner didn’t think he was in any danger. They told him to go out there and not get hurt. He should have jumped all over Ali at the beginning of the round. But he waited for 2:50 and then he unloads.”
The New York Post said the bout in Yankee Stadium was the third of one of the best trilogies in boxing history. Norton won by split decision in their first meeting in March 1973, when he broke Ali’s jaw in San Diego. Ali won the rematch by split decision six months later in Los Angeles, and was defending the title when they met three years later in Yankee Stadium.
“Muhammad always had trouble with Norton’s style,” Lederman said. “Norton would drag that right foot and come over the top with a vicious right hand.”
Willis wrote that the controversial decision only added to an already crazy evening. The New York Police Department was on strike at the time, leaving fans to attend the fight at their own risk. An expected crowd of 30,000 wound up being about 20,000.
“There were fights and riots all outside the stadium,” Lederman recalled. “Pickpockets were everywhere. It wasn’t a great neighborhood to begin with. You can imagine what it was without police protection.”
Lederman could have used his own police protection after Ali-Norton and this was before talk radio, the Internet and the over analyses that come with sports today. Still, he considers himself fortunate to have judged one of the most famous fights in boxing history.
“If [Norton] got robbed, he got robbed by one round,” Lederman said.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NEW YORK YANKEES STADIUM