He earned fame, and perhaps notoriety, for breaking the jaw of a prime Muhammad Ali, but there is definitely more to Ken Norton than the unforgettable victory he recorded over “The Greatest” in March 1973.
Norton, who passed away recently at age 70, excelled in the golden era of the heavyweight division. In the 1970s, theweight class was the premier attraction in boxing, boasting of talented and exciting fighters like Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo, Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes and, of course, Norton.
Norton actually became a world champion, but many treat with the proverbial grain of salt his short-lived reign. Norton became a champion via a not-so royal proclamation, or after Ali was stripped of his World Boxing Council (WBC) title for refusing to defend against the dangerous Norton and opting for a rematch with the lightly-regarded Leon Spinks. In 1978, the WBC declared Norton as its new heavyweight champion, citing as its basis Norton’s November 1977 title-elimination victory over Jimmy Young and Ali’s subsequent refusal to defend the crown against him.
In retrospect, Ali had every reason to avoid Norton. The two fought three times with Ali failing to score a conclusive victory. Following Norton’s upset decision over Ali in March 1973, Ali eked out a disputed split-decision win in a rematch six months later. Three years later, in September 1976, Ali defended the world heavyweight title against Norton and won by a disputed split-decision. The January 1988 issue of Boxing Monthly listed the third fight as the fifth most controversial decision in boxing history.
In his prime, Norton was a tough cookie. Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, he was an outstanding multi-sport athlete at Jacksonville High. After graduating from high school, he briefly attended Northeast Missouri State on a football scholarship. After a shoulder injury ended his career in the gridiron, Norton boxed as a U.S. Marine and compiled an amateur record of 24-2. In November 1967, living penniless and a divorced father at 24, Norton turned professional with a fifth round knockout of Grady Brazell. Norton went undefeated in his first 16 fights, 15 of which ended by knockout.
Flaunting a cross-armed defense and a mean left hook, Norton merited serious attention as a pro when he defeated Ali in their first meeting. Ali was a 5-to-1 favorite and ranked No.1 challenger in the world, but the No. 6 ranked Norton sent a strong message by breaking Ali’s jaw and securing a split-decision victory after 12 frames. Norton claimed he felt Ali’s jaw pop in the latter part of the fight, but Ali claimed he broke it as early as the second round.
While he never won the WBC hardware in actual combat, Norton defended it like a true champion. On June 9, 1978, Norton rumbled with Larry Holmes for 15 rounds before dropping a razor-close split-decision. The March 2001 edition of The Ring magazine ranked the 15th round of the fight as the 7th most exciting round in boxing history.
Norton drifted into oblivion after the fight, winning only two of his next five fights. In 1981, he was forced into retirement after suffering a numbing first-round knockout defeat to then unbeaten challenger Gerry Cooney. Norton, then only 37 years old, archived the gloves with a record of 42-7 with 33 knockouts.
Gifted with a muscular physique, Norton flirted with a career in Hollywood, but his dreams of becoming a full-time thespian was shattered when he figured in a vehicular accident in 1986 that left him with a severely fractured skull. Norton survived the mishap, but his health deteriorated years later following a series of strokes.
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