Premium Feature

Love Story – Terry Norris and Tanya

Terry Norris
Nick Potts/Action Images
Terry Norris was deteriorating fast when his future wife saved him. Together they fight against the brain damage caused by a brutal career inside the ring

TO look at him, you wouldn’t believe the man sitting opposite is a 49-year-old damaged by boxing. Terry Norris’ strikingly handsome features look much younger, he’s impeccably dressed, and on his arm is his stunning wife and best friend, Tanya. Aesthetically, they are perfect. They appear more suited to Hollywood, California, and a glitzy premier, rather than Florida’s lesser known Hollywood, which hosts the WBC convention where we all meet.

Tanya looks at her husband almost all the time, smiling softly, asking him questions, making sure he’s okay. He nods, smiles a million-dollar smile, but he’ll never be okay. At least not in the way that he used to be when he was a million-dollar fighter. They met in 2009, 10 years after Norris was forced to retire from boxing when doctors were alarmed by his deterioration, and four years after he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. When they came together, Norris was struggling badly. Lost and confused, “Terrible” Terry was heading for the abyss that captures so many of his kind.

“At first I wasn’t really sure what was wrong with him,” Tanya says as Norris acknowledges yet another fan who walks by and calls out his name. “I started Googling fighters who had got injured and things like that, and started to see that he might have some issues that he didn’t address, that he didn’t know, that he was unaware of. It was a progressive condition. He knew he had something because he was already permanently disabled when I met him. Dr [Margaret] Goodman wouldn’t allow him to fight, which was in 1999. Then in 2000 he was registered disabled permanently, but there wasn’t any therapy or real diagnosis, and there still isn’t, not 100 per cent. It’s chronic Traumatic Pugilistic Dementia, it’s Parkinsonism [a form of Parkinson’s Disease]. They say now it’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy [CTE].”

The list of symptoms include: memory loss, confusion, depression, emotional outbursts, muscular rigidity, tremors, speech and swallowing problems, balance and walking problems.

‘My biggest fear is that he’ll wake up one day and not remember me’

Following his final contest, his third consecutive defeat and a punishing loss to Laurent Boudouani, Norris’ final application for a boxing licence was denied on the advice of Goodman because he could barely talk. In retirement, he faded rapidly. The words would get lost between his brain and lips, he had no response to the tricks his body was playing, and the confusion was agonising. He found comfort, of sorts, in alcohol. He was still a young man, and boxing – the sport he will always love – had crippled him. It was an astonishing demise, one of the cruellest reminders in recent years about the savagery of the sport and a stark warning about its nature.

Today, in the lavish lobby of the Diplomat Hotel near Miami, Norris – arguably the greatest super-welterweight of all-time – is in a good place. While his condition is still thought to be progressive, he has improved immeasurably under Tanya’s watch. It’s 11.30pm and he unscrews the bottle of water in his hand. Ensuring his brain is hydrated all the time is a crucial part of his life now, and that he can take the cap off without any trouble is a mark of how far Norris has come. Since he met Tanya, he has been fighting harder than he ever did before. He has stopped drinking, he’s learnt how to speak again, and how to control his body; how to appear, well, normal.

“The speech started to go [first],” Norris explains. He speaks quietly, there’s a wispy edge to his words, a little like Muhammad Ali used to sound in the early days of his battle with Parkinson’s, but understanding him is not a problem. “I can’t tell you when exactly but it came on kinda fast. I wasn’t married to Tanya then, I had another wife. It was noticeable that my speech was going, my brain started to slip, my memory started going. It all came on pretty fast. Talking to people was very, very hard. Now my speech is a lot better than it used to be. I’ve been learning to speak all over again. Back then it was a lot harder to understand me, it was difficult.”

Like so many fighters before him, Norris knew his body was rebelling against the rigours of his trade long before the end. He was in denial for the final years of his career, doing his best to ignore the signs that prepared to pounce like a boa constrictor.

“I was sparring in camp and there was one time I stumbled over my own feet,” Terry explains. “My dad [and trainer, Orlin Norris Snr] asked me what was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. I kept doing it, my balance wasn’t right. At that time I knew I should think about hanging the gloves up, but I didn’t want to, I was still young, I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to fight and I had the heart of a lion. That was when I should have quit but that was why I lost those [last] three fights – I just wasn’t the same.

“That was hard. Some days I’m still not over it. It is hard, to take away something you love. It was in me to fight. I love boxing, and competing. It’s really hard for me.”

In his pomp, everything was easy. Brother of cruiserweight champion Orlin Norris, Terry ruled the 154lb weight class – with the occasional break – for nine years with admirable efficiency. He was an assassin in the ring, yet his graceful style belied his malevolence; it flowed effortlessly, it was a joy to watch, and there was a time when he looked unbeatable as he destroyed the likes of John Mugabi, Donald Curry, Meldrick Taylor and a past-his-peak Sugar Ray Leonard.

Terry Norris

“At that time, Terry Norris was the best,” he says, holding eye contact, that smile threatening to break into laughter. He’s at his most animated when he talks about the good old days. “It’s a great feeling, I felt that I was invincible. I would walk into a room, everyone would look at me. All of my opponents would say, ‘That’s Terry Norris.’ I won fights just by being me.”

But his reign of terror was not initially built from fear, he had to recover from three losses early in his career, the third one a two-round sledgehammering at the hands of Julian Jackson in a failed bid for the WBA super-welterweight title in 1989, three years after he had turned professional.

“I didn’t know if I’d be gun shy when I got back in the ring [after that loss to Jackson], so I had a couple of fights, and when I was hit in those fights, I responded well. I wasn’t scared, in the end it was easy to get over because I told myself it would be. I said to myself, ‘Every true champion gets beat.’ I’m a true warrior, I’m a true champion.”

The first of four coronations came the following year when he unseated WBC champion “The Beast” Mugabi inside three minutes in the Sun Dome in Tampa, Florida.

“When I won the world title it was the greatest feeling ever.” It’s not clear how much Norris actually remembers about these fights or if the answers are simply rehearsed. Two days before the interview, Tanya requested that the questions be sent via text to ensure Norris “can recall.” If he is on auto-pilot, though, it’s impressive, and it should be noted that whenever questions are thrown at him that were not on the script, he answers quickly and with what appears complete sincerity. His short-term memory is a problem, but he seems to remember the events from his previous life. “I started fighting when I was nine years old,” he continues, “and I wanted to be champion all my life and to be WBC world champion, it was a great feeling. I won that title for my dad – God bless his soul, may he rest in peace – I won that belt for him. He used to fight but he couldn’t be champion at my level. It was the greatest feeling ever. I felt like a king.”

A one-sided victory over Rene Jacquot eased him into his championship reign before a more formidable challenger appeared in 1991. It was the comebacking Leonard – Norris’ hero – who hadn’t lost for 11 years. Leonard entered the bout a favourite, but the younger man won a lopsided decision over 12 rounds, decking him along the way, and effectively ending an illustrious career. Eight short years before Norris stumbled onto the scrapheap, he became a superstar.

“Maybe I expected more from Ray,” Terry describes. “But look, Ray is my idol. I knew Ray’s style, I’d studied it, I knew everything he did, when he was going to do it. I capitalised on every little thing that he did and that was the greatest fight I ever had.

“It was kinda sad to end his career, but at the time I didn’t even care. I wanted to win, and when I was beating him, I wanted to beat him, I wasn’t unhappy to be winning just because he was my idol. I didn’t want to hurt the man, but I wanted to win the fight.”

Norris stormed through a further nine successful defences before Simon Brown knocked him out in the biggest upset of 1993. While Norris was a near-perfect fighting machine, his willingness to rumble occasionally cost him, and so did his short fuse. He would regain his title in a rematch before getting caught up in an unnecessary three-fight rivalry with the undeserving Luis Santana. The first two saw Norris disqualified: “That was crazy, that was crazy. I hit him after the bell and I made a mistake, I just screwed up. They should have been easy fights, man. I could fight him with my eyes closed and still beat him.”

He eventually did, effortlessly banishing Santana in their third bout, and he went on to add the IBF title to his precious WBC strap with victory over Paul Vaden. By now, Norris was 29, and just two years from the end. Through it all, Norris was sparring constantly – he would later admit to at least 12 rounds every day. The punishment was building.

‘Some days I’m still not over it. It is hard, to take away something you love. It was in me to fight. I love boxing, and competing’

In 1997, all he had to do was defeat 7/1 underdog Keith Mullings and a $4m showdown with Oscar De La Hoya would have been his. He was beaten in nine rounds. The Norris of old, just like that, was gone forever.

“We believe it [the damage] happened three fights before he retired, it was one punch to the back of the head,” Tanya says, leaning over to hold her husband’s hand. “After that fight his speech went. He’s always had, not a slur, but he’s always had that softness. He had a lot of amateur fights, a lot of sparring. On top of that, being dehydrated, and that’s not good.

“I believe it was that fight. He got a concussion that never went away. He carried on training, he thought he could push through it, and that’s what happens.”

A loss to the crude Dana Rosenblatt confirmed Norris was done, before the depressing finale against Boudouani rubber stamped his pass into a dark new existence.

“I didn’t want to stop boxing,” Norris reveals. “I wish I could still fight now, but I can’t, or I shouldn’t.”

Consumed by fighting instinct, even the ill-fated crave one more hit. But Norris – who today feeds his habit by teaching boxing classes at his wife’s gym – has learnt his lesson. He recently implored his friend Shane Mosley, who fights on into his mid-forties, to retire from the sport.

“I really don’t think fighters should fight for so long,” Norris explains. “But it’s not my decision and I understand theirs. I can only offer my advice and if they don’t take it, then okay. If you really want to fight, then fight.”

“The problem with this is that all fighters are susceptible to this, and the older you get the worse it is,” Tanya adds. “You’re not just going to walk away without some sort of Parkinsonism or some sort of puglistia dementia. It’s unlikely you won’t be affected and if you’re older it’s worse. Even Marvin Hagler – he looks great, he sounds great – but as he gets older, you just don’t know [if he will suddenly be affected by his career].”

‘I’m a legend, you know? I won four world titles, I’m in the Hall of Fame, and I came through a lot setbacks. So I regret the condition I’m in, but I don’t think I would change anything’

For now, the future is brighter for the Norrises than it’s been in a long time. Terry takes great pleasure in conducting those classes (Tanya confirms he is the most popular instructor at the gym they both own), and one suspects he’s not far off his fighting weight after originally bloating to over 200lbs while at his most miserable. The couple have also set up a foundation, Final Fight, which they hope will one day be able to provide funds to fighters struck down with similar problems. Perhaps most importantly for his delicate mind, he looks back on his career with more pride than regret. He has a lot to be proud of.

“I regret that my speech is like this, that I’m like this,” Norris admits before that familiar old bravado makes a welcome return. “But I’m a legend, you know? I won four world titles, I’m in the Hall of Fame, and I came through a lot setbacks. So I regret the condition I’m in, but I don’t think I would change anything. It’s part of me, what I was. I fought all the champions, I dominated my division for nine years. I wasn’t like Floyd Mayweather, and moving up and down – I fought everyone. If you were in my way, I came through you.”

So the past and present provide plenty of reasons to be cheerful for Mr and Mrs Norris, but both – quite rightly – are wary of the future. The prognosis for someone in Terry’s condition is not a bright one, and they must continue to work hard to avoid the presumed unhappy ending.

“When I go to bed, I never know,” Norris admits. “I may wake up and not be able to talk. With the Parkinsonism, I could lose my speech, anything could happen one day, I think about that. That makes me nervous. But right now, I feel good. I’m pretty sure tomorrow too, I’ll wake up, and I’ll feel good. Then, five or 10 years down the road, anything could happen.”

His wife looks at her beloved husband, and nods. Momentarily she hangs her head, hiding her face, dwelling on the worst case scenario.

“Sometimes I’m like, wait a minute, my memory is going to,” she admits, half-kidding, only too aware nothing in life is guaranteed. “Our joke used to be, what if you can’t talk and I can’t see, because I wear contacts [lenses]! But we don’t live our lives in fear, we have fun, and when he’s down I pick him up, and when I get down, he picks me up. We’re a team and that’s how it is. But my biggest fear is that he’ll wake up one day and not remember me.”

Terry reaches for his wife, his face alive with adoration. “Listen to me,” he says. “That will never happen. I will never forget her. I love her so much, she’s my best friend.”

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