It wouldn’t be fair to Ken Norton, the former heavyweight champion who died on Sept. 18 at age 70, if the first words of this homage were “Muhammad Ali.” Norton deserved better than that, just as he quite likely deserved to have better than a 1-2 record against the Greatest.
No tears of woe for the former football, track and basketball star from Jacksonville, Illinois who entered the Marines, learned to fight in the corps, and exited this plane as arguably the toughest puzzle for Ali to attempt to decipher.
A story in the LA Times said Norton, who earned scores of fans for shutting up the mouthy Muhammad in their first bout, in 1973, when he broke Ali’s jaw, died in an Arizona hospital. Norton had a stroke last year, and was suffering from congestive heart failure.
The last few decades weren’t smooth sailing for Norton; in 1986, he was driving home from a fund raiser, lost control of his car, and crashed. He was left partially paralyzed on his right side, and his speech was affected. But he soldiered on, relying on many self-help aphorisms which helped him make the leap from contender to full-fledged Ali Kryptonite.
Norton turned pro in 1967, and in 1973, got a shot at an Ali with a lone loss, to Frazier, on his ledger. Norton won a split decision in San Diego, but Ali’d people had him convinced that it was more so his lack of respect for Norton, and for a properly rigorous training camp, which made his evening arduous. In the rematch, though, a more fit Ali still couldn’t solve the Norton puzzle with a degree of certainty. Another split decision resulted, with this one being awarded to Ali. The rivals gathered again in 1976, in the semi-majestic setting of a “Bronx Is Burning” era Yankee Stadium. By now, Norton was respected, wasn’t dismissed as merely pretty packaging, a bodybuilder reject. He’d do his self-hypnosis, and recite his favorite passages from his favorite book, “Think And Grow Rich,” and believe that this time, he’d do his thing, and the judges would do theirs, the right way.
They didn’t, not in Norton’s mind, nor a majority of watchers. He wept, openly, in the ring after the call. “I wasn’t even tired,” he said post-fight. “If I thought it was close, I’d have fought back harder and more. When you fight Ali, you’re behind at the start. It’s obvious you have to knock him out to win. When it’s that obvious, you have to think the judges stole it. They made asses out of themselves. The fight speaks for itself.” So will Norton’s role in that heavyweight golden age of the 1970s.
He leaves behind a 42-7-1 mark, with 33 KOs, and the respect of his peers, like George Foreman. “We were all were called handsome, Ali was called “pretty,” but Kenny Norton was the fairest of them all,” Foreman told me on Wednesday night. “You didn’t want to take off your shirt around him. He was a lovely man, inside and out.” That physique attracted attention, from ladies, from fellas, from Hollywood; Norton was cast in a feature called “Mandingo” which came out in 1975. The reviews he received for fighting were of a higher grade.
Norton bobbed and weaved against Ali, stalking him often, using an underrated accuracy to pierce Ali’s armor. He’d often outwork Ali, or so he thought, even if the judges perhaps gave Ali credit for some “rope a dope” strategizing. Norton’s left hook could bother you, as could his overhand right. The jab wasn’t a poleaxer like Holmes but it was a more than competent tool. You had to be aware from damage coming from underneath with Norton, who used the uppercut when called for, to great effect. He could work at medium range or inside, and didn’t mind getting into squared up, rock em sock em rumbles. You had to guard high and low against Norton, who could redden either side of your body. Norton left the stage in 1981, no longer willing to act as an offering to hot shots wanting to add a sweet scalp to their resume. Besides his 39 rounds with Ali, he stepped in with Foreman (losing a TKO2 in ’74), and was able to earn another crack at the glory, beating 38-0 Duane Bobick, Lorenzo Zanon and Jimmy Young, after which he was handed the WBC crown, because Leon Spinks didn’t want to defend that strap against Norton. Using that crossed arm defense, he started slow, but got cooking, and impressed all with a furious 15th round effort. All except the judges; they liked Holmes via, you guessed it, split decision.
The lack of love from the arbiters didn’t keep the International Boxing Hall of Fame from inducting Norton in 1992. To sum up Norton’s legacy, it might be most apt to emply an adage he held dear: “What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve.” Indeed…even if the judges don’t agree with you.
Follow Woods on Twitter.