How Two Champions Lifted the Sagging Spirits of a Nation

Among the great things about sports is that they allow us to rise above, or at least ignore temporarily, our present circumstances.

In 1995, I was newly single (I suggested to my girlfriend at the time that we break up and she thought it was a wonderful idea), working a dead-end job, living in a cockroach-infested studio apartment and driving a car with a big dent on the passenger side — courtesy of a hit-and-run driver during my first week at said roach-infested apartment.

1995 was also the year the Seattle Mariners made the playoffs for the first time in their history. After beating the California Angels in a one-game showdown to capture the American League West, Seattle rallied from a two-game deficit to win the AL Division Series against the big, bad New York Yankees — immortalized in rapper Macklemore’s tribute to longtime Mariners’ broadcaster Dave Niehaus (“My Oh My”).

I can still see Ken Griffey Jr. grinning broadly at the bottom of a heap of players at home plate after scoring the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning of the deciding game. Shortly thereafter, I was fist-bumping the cockroaches sharing my living quarters and had discovered a great little sports bar nearby that promptly made me forget about my ex.

My oh my.

By most standards, 1973 was not a great year for many Americans. The stock market began a decline in February that it would take 10 years to recover from, GDP growth turned negative and inflation skyrocketed from 3.6 percent in January to 8.7 percent in December.

And, of course, there was the Watergate Scandal and subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon.

To make matters worse, two seemingly invincible champions tasted defeat within weeks of each other.

On March 31, 1973, Muhammad Ali was making his sixth title defense since claiming the vacated North American Boxing Federation heavyweight belt via a TKO over Jimmy Ellis in 1971. Ali was the World Boxing Association’s no. 1 contender and a 5-1 favorite against the sixth-ranked Ken Norton, a former Marine.

Prior to the bout, Ali said he would “annihilate” Norton, but refused to name a round, claiming that his opponent was “too good for that.”

He was right.

After suffering a broken jaw in the first round, according to his manager Angelo Dundee, Ali lost a split decision to Norton, putting his dream of winning the WBC and WBA titles back from George Foreman on hold.

Three weeks later, Secretariat went to post as the 1-5 favorite in the Wood Memorial, his final prep for the Kentucky Derby.

After finishing fourth as the 3-1 favorite in his career debut — Secretariat was favored in 20 of his 21 lifetime starts, contrary to what Walt Disney and some handicapping authors might lead you to believe — “Big Red” won 10 consecutive races (minus the Champagne, which the stewards took from him) and few thought he could be beaten.

In fact, prior to the Wood, Secretariat had set a track record in the Gotham, blazing a mile in 1:33-2/5. Thus, his non-threatening third-place finish — arguably the worst performance of his career — behind stablemate Angle Light and Sham at Aqueduct had many racetrackers scratching their heads.

Later, trainer Lucien Laurin blamed a dental abscess for his colt’s stunning defeat in the Big Apple, but others had another theory: they believed that Secretariat’s failure was due to the distance of the Wood (nine furlongs) and questioned whether the son of noted sprinter Bold Ruler had the stamina to last the 1 ¼ miles of the Derby.

A mere two weeks later, Secretariat would prove the doubters wrong. He not only annexed the Kentucky Derby, he set a stakes and track record in the process, both of which still stand today. The Meadow Stable star went on to become the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years — and he did it with style.

Secretariat, with jockey Ron Turcotte up, powers his way to victory in the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 9, 1973 to become the first horse since Citation in 1948 to win the Triple Crown (AP photo).

Secretariat, with jockey Ron Turcotte up, powers his way to victory in the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 9, 1973 to become the first horse since Citation in 1948 to win the Triple Crown (AP photo).

His 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes, in which he was “moving like a tremendous machine,” is arguably the greatest performance by a thoroughbred in the history of racing (the 2:24 final time of that race has scarcely been approached, much less matched or bettered).

Meanwhile, as Secretariat was adorning the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated (an honor bestowed on no horse before or since) and later retired with a $6 million syndication deal brokered when he was still a juvenile, Ali was preparing for his rematch with Norton.

Ken Norton lands a blow in his second fight with Muhammad Ali. Trailing late in the fight, Ali won the 12th and final round and regained the NABF heavyweight title (AP photo).

Ken Norton lands a blow in his second fight with Muhammad Ali. Trailing late in the fight, Ali won the 12th and final round and regained the NABF heavyweight title (AP photo).

“The Greatest” entered the ring on Sept. 9, 1973, nearly 10 pounds lighter than he was for his first tussle with “The Fighting Marine” — and his smaller frame served him well. Noticeably quicker, Ali was able to squeak out a split-decision win thanks to a conclusive 12th and final round that he needed to win… and did.

After his victory over Norton, Ali wouldn’t lose again until he faced Leon Spinks in 1978 (following the Triple Crown run of another equine great, Affirmed).

Two years later, with his skills eroded beyond recognition, Ali was brutalized by Larry Holmes in his first title fight since winning the heavyweight belt back (for a record third time) from Spinks and retiring. Sylvester Stallone, who also won the heavyweight title on several occasions — on film — said the fight was “like watching an autopsy on a man who’s still alive.”

After another defeat — this time at the hands of Trevor Berbick, perhaps best known for his spectacular loss to Mike Tyson when that one became the youngest heavyweight champ in history — Ali retired, again, at the age of 39.

Secretariat passed away on Oct. 4, 1989; Ali succumbed to septic shock resulting from a respiratory illness on June 3, 2016. But during the gloom of 1973, they gave a nation a reason to hope… a reason to celebrate… a reason to tolerate cockroaches.

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.
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