News September 2013

Sleep well Kenny Norton heavyweight legend and sporting Icon

23.09.13

By Michael J Jones


On September 18th boxing lost one of the great heavyweights in former WBC champion Ken Norton. After a long battle with illness Kenny died from congestive heart failure. He was 70-years-old and had never been the same since a serious motor cycle accident in 1986 which left him with limited mobility and slurred speech.

Born in Jacksonville on August 9th 1943, Kenny was said to be a star athlete in high school, excelling in track and field and football before joining the Marine Corps in 1963 where he discovered boxing. The impressively-muscled youngster developed an unusual crab-like fighting style which proved awkwardly effective.

After four years in the Marines and compiling a solid 24-2 (22) amateur record, 6’3” Norton left his first career to make his pro boxing debut. The former three-time All Marines amateur champion made his first pro appearance on November 14th 1967 with a fifth-round knockout of Grady Brazell in San Diego.

Sporting a cross-armed guard, an Adonis-like physique and punching power in either hand, Kenny swept to a perfect 16-0 (15) in his first few years as a pro before running into Venezuelan contender Jose Luis Garcia. The Los Angeles bout saw Norton edge the majority of the first seven stanzas before his 6’4” opponent secured a stoppage in the eighth.

Unperturbed, the beaten fighter would reel off thirteen victories on the spin in the next two years. One of those wins was a ninth-round mauling of long-time contender Henry Clark in Nevada. The result was particularly impressive as in 50 pro bouts, Clark (a regular sparring partner for Muhammad Ali) would only ever be stopped by Norton, Sonny Liston and Earnie Shavers.

The winning streak brought Kenny a showdown with “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali with the NABF belt on the line. Former champion Ali, at 41-1, had only ever been beaten by “Smokin” Joe Frazier and was the firm 5-1 favourite to retain his NABF title and earn a world title shot at new heavyweight ruler George Foreman.

Norton had a secret weapon before the bout however. Eddie Futch had helped train Joe Frazier to beat Ali two years earlier and instilled in Kenny simple but effective tactics to counter the faster hands and superior natural talent of “The Greatest”.

The underdog for the bout in March 1973, fought the fight of his life against Ali. Keeping a high tempo and constantly leaning away from the Ali jab, Kenny would take advantage of Ali’s “rope-a-dope” to pound his ribs, hips and arms at will.

After sustaining a broken jaw from a Norton right-hand, left hook in the second, Ali would shockingly lose a split decision in a big upset as Kenny won by scores of 7-4, 5-4 and 5-6 (in rounds). In truth, the victor appeared to have won eight of the twelve rounds as Ali struggled to solve the Norton riddle.

Six months later a leaner (by 9lbs), more serious Ali would even the score with another gruelling split decision in another closely-fought contest. There seemed very little separating the two great rivals at the final bell but this time Ali was given the verdict 7-5, 6-5 and a 5-6 in Norton’s favour.

Six months after the Ali rematch Norton was matched with fearsome heavyweight king George Foreman in Caracas, Venezuela. The 25-year-old champion had just demolished Joe Frazier and Jose Roman in world title fights but question marks still remained about the 39-0 (36) George. Many suggested Kenny was the man to test the huge-punching Texan but Norton was embarrassingly brushed aside in two ferocious rounds.

Putting the shocking defeat behind him, the former Marine stayed active in the next two years and was impressive in defeating both Jerry Quarry and former foe Jose Luis Garcia in five rounds apiece. With seven knock-out victories in a row since the Foreman defeat, Kenny would face a familiar face in his second shot at the world heavyweight title.

After Ali had turned back the clock to surprisingly hammer Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” Norton would face his great rival one last time over fifteen rounds with the title on the line. The bout took place on September 28th 1976 at Yankee Stadium. Ali was the firm favourite beforehand and insisted repeatedly “I will not run from Kenny Norton”.

After boldly predicting a knockout throughout the build-up, Ali foolishly stood flat-footed in the early rounds as Norton picked up points with his aggression and work-rate. By the championship rounds most had the challenger in a handy lead but, from the eleventh, Ali sensibly got on his bike to bag most of the late rounds on the back-foot.

In the last, Kenny kept out of harms way as he felt sure he was far in front but incredibly, the bout went unanimously for the champion. As the score-cards of 8-6, 8-7 and 8-7 were read out Norton, who had celebrated wildly at the final bell, was reduced to tears of frustration.


The following year Kenny, now nearly 34-years-old, was matched with young star Duane Bobick at Madison Square Garden. Bobick had been outstanding amateur and at 38-0 as a pro was expected to have his break-out performance against the aging Norton.

However, at a mere 58 seconds, Kenny would prove with a hard body-shot he was far from finished.

Later in 1977, Norton was matched with slippery Jimmy Young in a WBC title eliminator held at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. After two questionable decisions going against him against Muhammad Ali, this time it was Norton who proved fortunate as he was awarded a fifteen-round split verdict. The vastly-improved Young was unbeaten since a controversial points loss to Ali and had beaten both Ron Lyle and George Foreman since; many thought he deserved the spoils but regardless, Norton was adjudged the winner and moved to become WBC number one contender.

In the weeks that followed, Leon Spinks would be stripped of the WBC title for accepting a rematch with the aging Muhammad Ali instead of defending against Norton. With that, Kenny at 34 would be crowned the WBC heavyweight champion.

The new champion wanted to waste no time proving his worth and sought out the toughest fight out there for his first defence. Larry Holmes would make for that test and the two met in June 1978 at Las Vegas.

The 27-0 Holmes came into the ring with an arm injury but built a solid lead over the first half of the fight behind his piston-like jab. Norton came right back into the fight by the later rounds and bullied the younger man with thumping hooks. By the last, it looked anyone’s fight.

What a final three minutes it would prove.

Likely with memories of his last bout with Ali, Kenny went all out in the last and shook Larry up with a pair of chopping rights. As Norton finished strongly, the challenger looked heavy legged and dazed but kept punching back and, towards the end of the round, hurt Kenny with a right uppercut.

Norton was driven back and ended the session under heavy fire by the rejuvenated Holmes.

As another Ken Norton fight was adjudged as a split decision, the cards read 143-142, 143-142 and 142-143 in favour of Larry after one of the greatest heavyweight title bouts of all time.

It’s fair to say Kenny was never the same after the magnificent Holmes fight.

Nine months after taking a prime Holmes to the wire, Kenny would be wiped out in a round by hard-hitting veteran Earnie Shavers at the Las Vegas Hilton. Five months later, the former champion would be held to a draw by the solid but unexceptional Scott LeDoux; suffering two heavy knock-downs in the last.

Although Kenny would announce his retirement after the LeDoux scare, he returned the following year to edge the unbeaten Randall “Tex” Cobb on another split decision. Seven months later though poor Kenny was fed to the hulking Gerry Cooney and dispatched inside 54 seconds to end his career pitifully.

After the Cooney loss, Norton sensibly retired for good at 42-7-1 (33). He has the distinction of being the only heavyweight champion in history to never have won a single world title fight (0-3 vs Foreman, Ali and Holmes). That has more to do with the depth of the 70’s heavyweight division than any lack of talent on Kenny’s part though.

Kenny the actor

Norton enjoyed several acting assignments during and after his boxing career. After gaining respectable reviews for his performance as a bare-knuckle fighter in ‘Mandingo’ in 75’, the heavyweight fighter was close to winning the role of ‘Apollo Creed’ in the first ‘Rocky’ movie. The role eventually went to Carl Weathers, making him an overnight star.

Once his career had finished, Kenny also had small roles in TV shows such as ‘The A Team’ and ‘Knight Rider’.

Trainers

Norton started his career under Eddie Futch but, upon the death of Joe Frazier’s trainer Yank Durham, Futch made the difficult decision to coach only Frazier. Norton and Joe sparred often before this happened but never met in the ring.

Following the departure of Futch, Norton was trained by Bill Slayton until his retirement in 1981.

Star son

Kenny Norton Jr was also athletically gifted like his famous father and played (American) football for both the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. He never tried boxing and is still involved in football as a coach.

Chin

The “Fighting Marine’s” only real weakness was his less-than-sturdy chin. Although the quick defeats to Shavers and Cooney can be attributed to Norton’s deterioration as a top-level fighter, the Garcia and Foreman losses came in Kenny’s prime.

Norton also suffered early career knockdowns to Harold Dutra, Aaron Eastling and Vic Brown but got up to stop all three.

The Louisville Lip

All three bouts with Muhammad Ali were so close all depended on the final round to decide who was victorious. In total, the two men shared 39 rounds together. Only Joe Frazier shared more three-minute sessions with Ali with 41 in Muhammad’s entire 61 bout career.

Despite sharing a ring on three occasions, neither Norton nor Ali ever scored a knock-down against each other in the trilogy.

Both were listed as standing 6’3” tall yet in all three clashes, Ali looked clearly the taller of the two. This was due to the fact that Norton worked out of a crouch while Muhammad liked boxing straight-up at long range.

The two men appeared together in the documentary ‘Champions Forever’ in 1988 alongside Foreman, Frazier and Holmes. In the film, Kenny revealed that after his accident in 86’ Ali was one of the first people to visit him in hospital.

The ones that got away

In the 70’s Norton never faced Ron Lyle, Joe Frazier or Jimmy Ellis among others. A bout with former gym mate Frazier would have been tasty had it happened around 72’-75’. Both could punch and were good for twelve or fifteen rounds. It may have been the case of who landed first but there’s no doubt it would have been a savage fight pitting Joe’s left hook and work-rate against Kenny’s strength and awkwardness.
The two never even talked about fighting due to their friendship.

Legacy

Out of the Golden age of the heavyweight division only Ali, Foreman and Holmes beat a prime Kenny. If you had a weakness at the top level, Norton would ruthlessly expose it. Norton’s main problem aside from his chin was the sheer level of fighters in his division at the time he was active.

Some may argue after the Jimmy Young fight that Kenny didn’t deserve to be called a world champion but think on this; the Californian bruiser only lost to Ali and Holmes by the slimmest of margins and would have been heavily favoured to stop Leon Spinks if the two had met as expected.

Kenny Norton was a humble and dignified athlete and will forever be linked to one of the most legendary eras in any sport. He beat Ali and pushed him to hell and back twice more. Of “The Greatest’s” five career defeats, only two came anywhere near his best; to Frazier in 71’ and Norton in 73’.


Rest in Peace Kenny Norton 1943-2013

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