By Jason Keidel
When boxing was a vital sport, Ken Norton was a vital boxer.
Before other sports matched the money and none of the danger, boxing was must-watch theater, a distillation of the rags-to-riches narrative that personified the American Dream. And Ken Norton was Exhibit A, morphing from unknown to renowned in 12 rounds in San Diego.
Norton made his bones by beating Muhammad Ali in 1973, cracking the legend’s jaw in the process. The running joke over the years was that Norton was the only fighter – or the only human – to shut the loquacious champion’s mouth.
Had he fought in any other era, Norton may have worn the world title belt for five years. But he was blessed and cursed to have competed during the golden era of heavyweights. Not only was Norton eclipsed by the holy heavyweight trinity of Ali/Frazier/Foreman, the division was ten-deep with with boxing luminaries.
The 1970s were a roll call of household pugilists, especially if you weighed over 200 lbs. After the aforementioned quartet, Ron Lyle. Oscar Bonavena. Earnie Shavers. Jerry Quarry, and Larry Holmes made the decade the most volcanic in boxing history.
Trained by Eddie Futch, the boxing Yoda who sharpened Joe Frazier’s skills, Norton was known for his pawing, praying mantis defense, thunderous right hand, and a chiseled body that would make the Rock blush.
Between the aggregate thumping from the ring and a violent car crash, Norton’s decay became more pronounced over the years, displaying the typical boxer’s slurred speech and slow gestures.
But behind the large hands and Adonis physique was a kindness to Ken Norton, which made his estrangement from his son – famed NFL linebacker Ken Norton, Jr. – profoundly sad. It took the elder Norton’s illness for the two to reconcile.
Ali never publicly tormented Norton the way he did most of his foes. Indeed, when Norton awakened from his post-crash coma, his first bedside sight was The Greatest, himself, performing a host of magic tricks, which were about as polished as his poetry.
When Ali vacated his title in 1978, Norton fought a young Larry Holmes for all the marbles. Foreman vs Lyle and Ali vs Frazier aside, it may have been the best bout of the decade, 15 rounds of savage pounding and precision, with Holmes squeaking out a decision, leaving both men battered, the canvas bloodied, while thwarting Norton’s last chance for stardom.
Norton was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992. Some will say he doesn’t belong there, pointing to his pedestrian 42-7-1 record. But consider he lost to Foreman, Holmes, Shavers, and Ali twice. Boxing is the rare sport where you can win when you lose, when your opponent says as much about you as your performance.
It’s tough to watch any fighter in repose, particularly someone of Norton’s heft. If the car wreck and the scrambled brain cells weren’t enough, he suffered a series of strokes over the last few years.
Beyond his obvious athletic splendor he was a Marine and the quintessential fighter’s paradox – a violent man with a soft soul. Ken Norton held the belt but for a few months, but he was a champion his entire life.
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