Grant Cohn: Every great one meets a Ken Norton, and 49ers will have theirs

  • Heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali, left, shows his fist to challenger Ken Norton, at right in a ring setup that was part of ?salute to sports? telecast live on Sunday, Sept. 26, 1976 at the felt forum in Madison Square Garden in New York. Emcee Dick Cavett looks on at left. (AP Photo)

He had to work and take shots to beat inferior boxers, boxers Foreman put away early, no sweat.

In 39 rounds, Ali never put away Ken Norton. Norton broke Ali's jaw and won a split-decision the first fight, Ali won a split-decision the second fight and Ali won a 15-round decision the third fight. Foreman knocked out Norton in the second round.

Norton had a glass chin, so he couldn't stand in and trade shots against a puncher like Foreman. But Norton could trade shots with Ali, who lacked a killer punch just like the 49ers.

NFL teams with nothing going for them other than a good run defense and one good cornerback can trade shots with the 49ers. Those opponents are the 49ers' Ken Nortons. You saw it last weekend when the 49ers played the Cardinals.

The Cardinals are not a good team. Their quarterback, Carson Palmer, didn't mess around against the 49ers — he tried to give them the game right away. He took a sack in the end zone and threw two interceptions in the first half. But the 49ers still couldn't pull away from the Cardinals until the fourth quarter, after the Cardinals had committed their third turnover of the game.

The Cardinals' defense held Gore to 20 yards on 10 carries in the first half and cornerback Patrick Peterson held Boldin to three catches for 28 yards the entire game. The Cardinals trailed by two points late in the third quarter when they had the ball near the red zone and Larry Fitzgerald fumbled. If he hadn't fumbled, the Cardinals probably would have taken the lead.

The Niners almost got Nortoned.

The 49ers' didn't have Ali Syndrome last season. The 49ers had the knockout punch of Sonny Liston — a dangerous passing game — mostly because they had Michael Crabtree.

Crabtree was the seventh-best wide receiver in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. This season, Boldin is tied for 64th with Leonard Hankerson and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Boldin had 208 receiving yards against the Packers' soft zone defense Week 1. Since then, opposing defenses have covered Boldin man-to-man with their No. 1 corner. Boldin has just 213 receiving yards the past five games. Good cornerbacks shut him down.

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