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Remembering a True Champion: Ken Norton

(Ken Norton)
(Ken Norton)

By Bill Tibbs


“I’m sure he’s in heaven now with all the great fighters. I’d like to hear that conversation.” – Ken Norton Jr. on his father’s passing.
 
Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, heavyweight Kenneth Howard Norton turned pro in November of 1967 after completing his service in the United States Marine Corps. He went on to enjoy an outstanding career in which he battled some of the heavyweight division’s best fighters throughout the 1970s, one of the division’s truly great eras. Before retiring, Norton would capture the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight title and do battle with legends Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Jimmy Young, Earnie Shavers, Jerry Quarry and Larry Holmes among others.

Kenny quickly moved to 16-0 by the summer of 1970 fighting exclusively in California, where he would fight all of his bouts in the first half of his career. The undefeated Norton turned heads with his chiseled physique, unique cross-armed “crab” defense and all-action style. He suffered his first loss in his 17th bout against experienced Jose Luis Garcia in a fight that would see him take two trips to the canvas. He would then string together 13 straight victories taking him into the spring of 1973. In his next fight, Norton would upset the odds and beat a prime Muhammad Ali, breaking his jaw on his way to capturing the North American Boxing Federation (NABF) title. In the fall of that year, Ali would avenge the loss in a controversial split decision. Norton’s following assignment was no easier as he faced thunderous punching George Foreman in Caracas, Venezuela in March of 1974, battling for the WBC and World Boxing Association (WBA) heavyweight titles. Norton would be dropped three times and stopped in the second round.
 
From the summer of 1974 until the summer of 1976, he would compile seven wins including a win over Jerry Quarry as well as avenging his previous loss to Jose Luis Garcia. This led to his third bout with the legend Ali at New York’s Yankee Stadium, again battling for the WBC and WBA heavyweight titles. Ali, having solved the Norton puzzle from their previous encounters, would beat him over 15 frames by a very close, unanimous decision. Norton won all three of his fights in 1977, beating Jimmy Young, Duane Bobick and Lorenzo Zanon. After his title eliminator win over Young, he was awarded the WBC title after champion Leon Spinks declined to face him instead opting for a more lucrative rematch with Muhammad Ali. This led to his June 1978 fight with Larry Holmes. Norton would lose a close, 15-round split decision over Holmes. The 15th and final round is a highlight-reel slugfest still considered one of heavyweight boxing’s greatest, all-action rounds. After returning five months later to pick up a win, he signed to fight legendary heavyweight bomber Earnie Shavers in March in his first bout of 1979. Shavers, considered one of boxing all-time hardest hitters, dispatched Norton in one round. He would return in August of that year to earn a draw against Scott LeDoux over 10 rounds in Minneapolis. 15 months after the LeDoux bout, Norton returned to earn a 10-round split decision win over tough Texan Randall “Tex” Cobb over 10 rounds. This led to a fight with undefeated up-and-coming New York slugger Gerry Cooney. Norton was stopped in the first round of their fight in Madison Square Garden. It would also be the last fight of Norton’s outstanding career.
 
Ken Norton is a 1989 inductee of the World Boxing Hall of Fame, a 1992 inductee of the International Boxing Hall Of Fame, a 2004 inductee of the United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame and a 2008 inductee of the WBC Hall of Fame. The 1998 holiday issue of The Ring magazine ranked Norton #22 among “The 50 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time.” Norton received the Boxing Writers Association of America’s J. Niel Trophy for “Fighter of the Year” in 1977.  In 2001, Norton was inducted by the San Diego Hall of Champions into the Breitbard Hall of Fame (honoring San Diego’s best athletes) and was inducted into the California Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
 
Kenny Norton, 42-7-1 (33), in 50 career fights, was a great fighter from an era in heavyweight boxing in which it was not easy to attain that tag. He fought the best of his time, many of them all-time greats, and was considered a champion both in and out of the ring. Ken Norton, who had suffered a stroke a year ago, passed away on September 18th, 2013 of congestive heart failure at the age of 70. Gone but never forgotten.
 
Rest in Peace, champ!
 
Questions and comments can be sent to Bill Tibbs at hwtibbs@shaw.ca.
 
 

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