RIP Ken Norton: He was a helluva fighter

Posted on: September 19,2013

Former heavyweight champion Ken Norton died yesterday at the age of 70, the result of complications of a series of strokes.
His epitaph could read:
This man whupped Muhammad Ali”
Here lies the man who broke Ali’s jaw”
Either would be a splendid remembrance for a boxer to take to his grave.
I have read where Ken Norton once said, “My greatest title was that of ‘father.’”
And maybe he would prefer that as an epitaph. It does speak to the kind of man he was. And he was, from all accounts, a proud and doting father. His son, Ken Norton, Jr., became a 13-year NFL linebacker and now coaches in the NFL.
Norton’s death takes me back to a time in my life — and in America — when the heavyweight boxing champion was the world’s most famous athlete and a heavyweight championship match transcended sports. Everybody — from Hollywood to Siberia — paid attention.
I was a huge fan. Tell you the truth — and I don’t think I’m alone on this — I don’t know what has changed most: boxing or me. Or America. I just know that I can’t tell you as I write this who now holds the heavyweight title. Furthermore, I don’t care.
Norton was part of boxing’s — particularly the heavyweight division’s — zenith. We had Ali, Liston, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Norton and then the so-underrated Larry Holmes. There were also Leon Spinks, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, Tex Cobb and more.
Norton looked the part more than any of them rest. At his best, he was 6-foot-2 and weighed 220 pounds. You couldn’t find a pinch of fat anywhere. He was muscle on top of muscle with broad shoulders, tapering down to a slender waistline. He looked like a black Greek god.
And he was a hitting machine. Like Smokin’ Joe Frazier, he was always coming at you, his fists jabbing and hooking like pistons. He didn’t back up. Norton never went backward, always forward.
Ali , the champ, was heavily favored in their first fight. And he may have been overconfident and undertrained. Believe it or not, it was on free television, ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Norton shocked Ali with his resolve, strength and punching power. Norton always said he broke Ali’s jaw in the 11th of 12 rounds. Ali and his entourage always contended that the break came much earlier in the fight, which limited Ali’s effectiveness.
In either case, the Ali’s jaw was definitely broken and wired shut for the next few weeks. As pundits noted, “Somebody finally shut up Ali.”
Norton, ever the gentleman, visited Ali in the hospital afterward, where Ali reportedly mumbled, “I never want to fight you again.”
But fight again, they did — twice more. All three fights were split decisions. I watched all three. The second came six months after the first and Ali won a split decision. I thought Ali won that fight, although Norton and his people did not. Both of the first two Ali-Norton fights were in 1973.
The third fight was outdoors at  Yankee Stadium in 1976. It was another bruising fight, which took much out of both men. Ali was awarded a highly controversial split decision. Many, this writer included, thought Norton won. I should tell you I was an Ali fan, pulling for the champ. I thought he got whupped.
These memories come back to me now with the news of Norton’s death. He was a fine and courageous fighter, seemed a gentleman and prided himself on being a good father.
Getting back to how this started, none of the above is a bad epitaph.
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