'Terrible' Terry Norris: Boxing Excellence

BY Patrick Kehoe ON February 07, 2005
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After having been decked in the second round and basically drubbed for four rounds, a desperate Sugar Ray Leonard came out in the fifth, throwing hard against WBC 154-pound champion Terry Norris, to the delight of the Madison Square Garden faithful. The sparse crowd of 7,458 rose from their seats, most of them imploring Leonard to break down the agile, combination hitting Norris. The young titleholder was supposed to have already gone gently horizontal into that good night of another Sugar Ray comeback. After all, Norris had been handpicked by the thirty-four year-old, five-time world champion - as had the classic New York venue - for the purposes of maximum credibility to be regained, atmospherics and theatrics ever at the command of the “Sugar Man.”

The problem manifesting itself as a physical and mental beating was that Terry Norris, three times beaten at twenty-three and given to mixing it up without the security of a granite chin, was also proving to be an athletic singularity, a marvel of dynamic motor capacity. Surging forward in the fifth, Leonard hit mostly air; his legendary ability to shoeshine an opponent with jarring combinations was being voided. Furtively, Leonard hit with some and missed with many more. Finally, Norris dropped his jabbing and dancing, Ali-light defensive posturing to unleash his signature left jab, right cross, left uppercut combination. Leonard’s tilted for attack head was not snug enough behind his left shoulder; when glove met the shell of his head, Leonard’s already puffy visage violently jerked toward the ring lights, as Norris then recalibrated in a micro instant hitting his boyhood hero’s midsection like he would a heavy bag. Thud! At the bell, Norris turned quickly to his corner. Leonard smiled after him almost hoping to catch Norris’ gaze. At that moment, Leonard knew he had deceived himself; he’d been dreaming. He really was in the ring with a slight variation on himself, a boxer-puncher supreme.

No, Terry Norris would not turn out to be Sugar Ray Leonard; but, he would prove himself an incredible talent, technically inventive, rigorously trained always, given to mental implosions, yet still a boxer of athleticism on a level only equaled by Roy Jones Jr. in the 1990s. He’d hit Leonard, while the former champion was splayed on all fours, having to travel almost 10 feet, with Arthur Merchant trying to impede him to accomplish the foul. Likewise Norris would hit a downed Donald Curry after crushing him with a left hook and right hand. The infamy of his lack of self-control embellished into two title fight farces by Luis Santana, who took the only way out of a beating at the fists of Norris he had open to him: on a stretcher. Such was the hot blood coursing though “Terrible” Terry. Beyond the personal foibles of losing while dominating, a prime Norris was essentially sublime against all of his opponents. Undetectable from his rhythmical combination hitting was his all-out power hitting. In full flow, Terry Norris’ punches jolted his intended targets like electrical discharges.

Though his list of ring victims remains susceptible to critical inquiry as either beyond their expiration dates or not in his class, that common point of contentiousness can be asserted to any number of champions and even some legends of the ring. We need not assign greatness to Norris, for excellence will do nicely. He was the consensus main man in the junior middleweight division for the better part of the 1990s; his body a pure hybrid of welterweight kinetics and middleweight strength. His mercurial domination of a division, for the better part of a decade, tells us something of his overall impact and quality. No less a champion than Pernell Whitaker essentially avoided meeting Norris in the ring; manager-trainer Lou Duva had let his welterweight champion Meldrick Taylor take a beating against Norris and quietly nixed putting his other superstar Whitaker in against Norris, at the height of his ring powers in 1992-93. One Felix Trinidad camp insider admitted, “Norris was the only fight back then Don Felix was worried about. That’s how high Norris’ rep was!”

Always physically fit to fight, Norris sometimes forgot to box. The retelling of his first round “domination” against then junior middleweight bomber Julian Jackson has become a tired cliché. For it was Norris’ second round knockout demise that instructed him in what would be his future ring significance and us in our historical reckoning of him. Being rendered inert, humbled in a world title fight rarely represents a turned corner toward the horizon line of possibility. But it was for Norris. Some fighters get up from knockdowns to win fights; Norris survived a knockout loss to go on to dominate his generation of junior middleweights.

His double left lead was such a searing punch. His ability to even think of landing a left hook, right hook, right uppercut combination showed his audacious ability. Even in close early rounds, Norris would throw an uppercut in situations most veteran fighters would throw a left hook. Able to hit on the counter going backwards or moving to collapse defensive postures, Norris’ “X” factor was his reflexive speed. Normally placid on the outside, Norris burned with momentary contempt for his opponents on the inside. In ring center, behind his jolting left lead, Norris was the counterpunching bomber boxer par excellence, a coiled spring of potential explosiveness forming combination hitting, which scored often at an astounding 45 to 50 percent of the time. Many trainers conceded privately that if Norris was content on the night to “just box you” there was almost nothing his opponents could do to beat him.

But Norris love the moment of decisive confrontation. He often couldn’t check himself. On December 18, 1993, former welterweight champion Simon Brown was being tattooed when he drew a cocky Terry Norris into a series of inside exchanges, eventually landing a show closing left hook on the champ. In their May 7, 1994 rematch Norris put on a master class of situational boxing, landing clusters of punches to a befuddled Simon Brown. Norris proved over those twelve sterling rounds of technical virtuosity in Las Vegas that his vulnerability to the home run punch was not the full measure of him as a championship fighter. Nor was the misrule of his unchecked ego.

He could repeat patterns of metronomic combinations, as he did against a 55-2-2 (34), in shape Jorge Castro over twelve one-sided rounds in France; or search out and destroy title holders like Maurice Blocker, John Mugabi, Steve Little, Carl Daniels, Vince Pettway and Donald Curry; or just blister opponents with a humbling spread of continuous fire like Paul Vaden or Quincy Taylor. His projected anger – except for Paul Vaden – was typically an “in the moment” determination to capitalize on his opportunity to compete and win. Trainers and ex-boxers loved to watch Terry Norris turn from boxer to puncher to boxer again, his technical facility adaptively seamless.

We look back now at Terry Norris believing he was perhaps less than the sum of his parts and yet we do so understanding how completely he assailed the fighters he faced. Championship boxers offer us a myriad of contradictory facets, when we take it upon ourselves to assess them in and beyond the statistical context of their time, the relational value of potential ever an agent for conjecture. With Terry Norris specific weaknesses defining vulnerability always balance against those dynamic skill sets giving evidence to a memorable capacity in a boxing ring. Even if his brilliant moments were mitigated, less than desire’s expectation, “Terrible” Terry Norris gave us minor masterpieces, his polished, uncoiling speed moving to his intended victim, one of the few embodied figurations of his generation we will remember, by heart.

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