HEAVYWEIGHT HISTORY 1970-s
REVISITING THE CAREER OF KEN
SEPT 19--Jay Monte
Former Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton died
yesterday, a few days after the 40 year anniversary of his second bout
with Muhammad Ali, a close, heated affair that took place in Los Angeles
Inglewood Forum on Sept 10, 1973. It was do or die for Ali, who
had broken his jaw against Kenny a few months before.
I first heard of Ken Norton from a back-page
results article in Boxing Illustrated in the spring of 1972, where he
beat another West Coast fighter, Jack "The Giant" O'Halloran (who went
on to star in Superman movies) and that Norton was close to being a
fighter to be reckoned with in the heavyweight division. The ex-Marine
would go on to win a ten rounder against the crafty New Yorker Herschel
Jacobs and would stop James J. Woody and highly regarded Henry Clark
later that year.
This set the stage for a top notch bout against a
top contender. Muhammad Ali was on a tour of cleaning out the top talent
in the heavyweight division in quest for another bout with champ Joe
Frazier, who had defeated Ali in 1971. After the Frazier bout Ali
had defeated the likes of Mac Foster, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, George
Chuvalo, and Floyd Patterson. The bout with Norton would be held at the
San Diego Sports Arena, and Norton was seen as another fringe contender
who would be dismantled by the skill set of the former champ.
But Norton did not comply with the script, did not
listen to the critics, and banged and banged the body and then went for
the head that had Ali and the sports world reeling as the final bell
sounded on the afternoon of March 31st, 1973. The quest for a
rematch with Frazier was dealt two blows within two months - Frazier
lost his heavyweight title to George Foreman in January, and Ali,
mending a broken jaw, had to wait now to get a return at Norton, who
bolted from 15th ranked to the top three in the division, depending on
what sanctioning body you were looking at.
The rematch concluded with a split decision win for
Ali, as the
pattern of the first fight remained - the only difference was Ali was in
better shape and did not give ground as he did in the previous encounter
- but Norton, even sharper, still banged and banged, giving Ali the
fight of his life. To this day many say that was Kenny's fight also.
The two Ali fights
earned Norton a shot at George Foreman's title in March 1974. Foreman
abolished Norton's hopes with a second round KO and with it a tag
of invincibility. Norton then went on a tour of contenders,
impressing many with a stoppage of Jerry Quarry at Madison Square
Garden, and victories over Larry Middleton, Ron Stander, and Pedro
Lovell. Again Norton proved his worthiness as a threat to the
When Ali defeated Foreman in Zaire, Africa in Oct
'74, the heavyweight picture changed yet again - leading to an Oct '75
showdown with old foe Joe Frazier. In a bout that lived up to the hype,
the "Thrilla In Manila" saw an exhausted Ali the victor when trainer
Eddie Futch would not let Frazier out for the 15th. Many
were clamoring for a third Norton bout and on a cool night in Sept '76,
the two would meet again, this time for 15rds and the heavyweight title
at stake. It was the last heavyweight title bout staged at Yankee
Ali won by winning the last few rounds, ironically
different from the previous two bouts. And still there are many that
Kenny won this one also, and that his style had basically won all three
bouts against his opponent. And based upon his performance Kenny
was still highly regarded in the heavyweight picture.
1977 was perhaps the biggest of Norton's career. I
remember the outside workout at the Garden in May before a bout with
then undefeated Olympian Duane Bobick. Kenny was smooth and spoke with
the public, and despite being viewed as somewhat an underdog, gave
Bobick props for taking the bout. An overhand right to the throat
stopped Bobick in his tracks during a wild first round and Kenny was
back in the picture. He followed up with wins over Lorenzo Zanon and
Jimmy Young (**which was originally viewed as an eliminator), and again a quest for the elite prize in the division.
Again the heavyweight picture would change. In
the winter of '78 Leon Spinks, another Olympian, upset Ali over
15rds and gain the treasure. With Norton standing by as a
mandatory, Spinks chose for a lucrative rematch with Ali. Norton was
awarded the interim title and was mandated to defend against an upstart
Scranton, PA - Larry Holmes.
In a 15round slugfest, Holmes was awarded a narrow
decision over Norton. Despite a decade of great battles, the
Holmes-Norton bout was right up there with the best of them, and Holmes
would hold the title for seven years. Kenny would not be a factor again.
Norton would go 2-2-1 in his last five bouts and
his last appearance was at the Garden in 1981, a stoppage loss to Gerry
A 1986 car accident would slow Ken down a bit, but
he would go on tour with the other champs and be seen at the Hall Of
Fame in recent years. He was inducted into the International Hall Of
Fame in 1992.
The 1970's was a tremendous era for
heavyweight boxing, and all associated have a special place in boxing
history. Ken Norton was the fulcrum, the gatekeeper, the
uncrowned champion. Although he was awarded the title on merit rather
than a victorious effort in the ring, he earned his place in the history
of the sport. He wont be forgotten.
**Note: the Jimmy Young fight was first viewed as
an eliminator, then afterward as a championship bout/therefore it can be
viewed as Norton gaining the title after 15 rounds.
Photos courtesy Cut-man Richard
Norton (C) with old welter and
middleweight king Emile Griffith (L) with favorite fans a few years