BREAKING Muhammad Ali’s jaw will always be Ken Norton’s claim to fame but the former WBC heavyweight champion, who died in 2013 aged 70 after a long illness, deserves to be remembered for so much more. Let’s also talk about his place in heavyweight history as one of the best in a great era; the physique that looked like it had been sculpted from golden marble; the hellacious dogfight with Larry Holmes; and the fierce determination that fuelled survival from a horror crash in 1986.
Norton was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1943 and quickly developed the kind of self-confidence that only the physically blessed enjoy. His pristine physique was the envy of many and it developed effortlessly.
“I can only attribute it to good genes,” Norton explained in his 2000 autobiography. “I never worked out with weights, and that includes when I was boxing professionally.”
By the time Norton was in ninth grade, he measured almost six-foot, was an outstanding athlete, and cocky beyond his years. After mouthing off at the dinner table, his father threw a glass of water in his son’s face in an effort to cool the arrogance. The youngster unwisely challenged his maker to a fight, and after being flattened by a single punch, quickly realised that it takes more than muscles to rule.
His fight education continued after he joined the United States Marine Corps in 1964. The art did not come naturally – “I looked pitiful when I first tried to shadow-box” – but despite a reliance on brute force, he started to improve; in his first year in service he won 10 of 11 boxing matches. Future star referee, Richard Steele, was stationed with Norton at Camp Pendleton and remembers his development:
“I moved a lot and boxed instead of trading punches with Ken. He hit so hard he would hurt you without even knowing it, so I just tried to stay out of his way. When he got out of the Marine Corps and turned pro, I couldn’t box with him anymore, he improved so much from the time he started to the time he got out.”
By the time Norton ditched the vest in 1967 he had racked up a record of 24-2 (19) as an amateur. A year before his professional debut – a five-round pummelling of Grady Brazell – his son Ken Jnr was born. But problems arose with his then-wife Jeanette, and Norton was forced to raise his beloved boy alone. Ken Norton Jnr would grow up to be a pro linebacker and assistant coach at the Seattle Seahawks.
By 1970 Norton had moved to 16-0 with Eddie Futch as his trainer, but was decked four times and stopped in eight by 5-1 underdog Jose Luis Garcia in fight 17. Following the disaster, Futch attached a newspaper photograph of Norton, eyes glazed and knocked out, to the fighter’s locker.
“Damn Norton,” laughed Futch, “that photographer done got your best side in that picture. You gonna listen to me now?”
Norton paid attention to another lesson in the dangers of over-confidence. 13 wins and three years passed before Norton was matched against Muhammad Ali.
“Norton’s no mug but he hasn’t a chance with Ali,” was Boxing News’ verdict. He surprised everyone. Norton won a close decision over 12 and broke Ali’s jaw. Norton’s unconventional style was all wrong for “The Greatest”.
“Kenny gave Muhammad a hard time,” Ali’s trainer, the late Angelo Dundee, said. “I used to call it the ‘Hopalong Cassidy style.’ He took all the slickness out of Muhammad and you couldn’t time Kenny. He was such a good fighter and a big man. He used to bend down to neglect his own height and make things awkward.”
Ali won an immediate rematch on points but it was another tight affair. Ken was handed a shot at fearsome champion, George Foreman in 1974. But Futch was no longer in his corner – Norton would later claim his management sacked him – and he went into the biggest fight of his career with relative stranger, Bill Slayton, as his new trainer.
The relationship did not begin well as a ferocious Foreman chewed up Norton in two rounds. Despite the wreckage, Slayton and Norton built a sturdy relationship.
“I thought Kenny was an arrogant, cocky guy who acted like he was better than anyone else,” Slayton recalled about their early meetings. “But I later learned that he’s a beautiful guy. He’d do anything in the world for a friend.”
Norton won seven straight – including wins over Jerry Quarry, Ron Stander and revenge over Jose Luis Garcia – before securing a 1976 rubber match with Ali, who had regained his title with a stunning win over Foreman.
The fight was held at Yankee Stadium in New York. Ali, showing the signs of a punishing career, was deemed lucky by many to cling onto his title but the men that mattered (referee Arthur Mercante, judges Harold Lederman and Barney Smith) gave the champion a unanimous decision. Norton was furious. “You don’t win!” he screamed at his nemesis at the end of the showdown. “I beat you, you son of a bitch. I beat you!”
He remained bitter about the decision until his dying day. But it was boxing he was angry with, not Ali. “I admire the hell out of him,” Norton said.
“I’ve always liked Ali. I liked him before we fought; I liked him after we fought. Just not during.”
Norton impressed in his next outing – a one-round drubbing of the hyped and unbeaten Duane Bobick – and followed it with a split decision over the awkward Jimmy Young in a November 1977 WBC eliminator. He wanted a fourth crack at Ali but the old man lost his title to Leon Spinks three months later. When Spinks decided to make his first defence against the man he took the title from, the WBC stripped him of their belt and awarded it to Norton.
He was the first heavyweight in history to win the title outside the ring (Lennox Lewis would be the second after the same organisation handed the Englishman their belt after Riddick Bowe had dumped it in a dustbin).
Norton – unlike Lewis – failed to make a successful defence but his reputation as a fighter should be enhanced by the night he lost his title. The 15-round war with Larry Holmes remains a glorious exhibition of heavyweight boxing. Courage and skill oozed from the combatants and, after 14 rounds, it came down to a winner-takes-all final three minutes. The final round was intoxicating but Holmes sealed the title by the slenderest of split decisions.
First-round losses to Earnie Shavers and finally, to the emerging Gerry Cooney in 1981, forced him out of the game with a record of 42-7-1 (33). He earned $16m along the way; second only to Ali at the time.
Five years later, after appearing at a fundraiser in Los Angeles, his Clenet Excalibur hit two curbs, plunged over the edge of the roadway and crashed into a tree.
Norton underwent surgery that saved his life but he was not the same man when he awoke. He couldn’t speak or walk, and his memory was shot. Ali performed magic tricks beside his hospital bed while his family prayed for him.
Norton regained his ability to walk, and despite deep and slurred speech, his health had improved by the time he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
Norton acted in several movies, most notably Mandingo (1975), in which he played the slave-turned-fighter Mede.
In addition to Ken Jnr, Norton’s survivors include his wife, Rose Conant; daughter Kenishia and two other sons, Keith and Kenny John.