Looking Back At The Career Of Kenny Norton - “The Fighting Marine”

Ken NortonBy James Slater: Ken Norton was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, U.S.A in August of 1943. Most famous for his three memorable fights with Muhammad Ali, Norton, a Hall of Famer, achieved plenty more in his 14-year ring career.

A former marine, Norton turned pro in November of 1967, with a fifth round KO win over one Grady Brazell in San Diego. A further fifteen wins followed - all but one by KO - before Ken ran into Venezuela’s Jose Luis Garcia. Norton was stopped in eight rounds in July of 1970. Unperturbed, Ken boxed again just over a month later - keeping a clean sheet during his next fourteen bouts. It seemed the setback to Garcia had been a mere blip. Certainly, after his huge upset win in March of 1973 it looked like it.

For this was the fight in which Norton hooked up with Ali for the first time. Surely all fans know what happened in the famous fight held in San Diego? Norton gave Ali sheer hell with his fighting style, broke the former champ’s jaw and won a spit decision. Afterwards, Norton said he was on cloud ten - nine not being high enough! The former marine had beaten the draft dodger. Ken Norton had well and truly arrived on the world stage. Ali claimed he’d be in better condition for the rematch, once his jaw had healed, that is. And he was. Still, the second fight, held six months later in Inglewood, California, was another desperately close affair. This time it was Ali who prevailed via the split decision. Norton was far from finished after the loss.

The following year, he met the new champion in George Foreman. The fight, held in Caracas, Venezuela, was a disaster for Norton. Stopped in two painfully devastating rounds by a “Big” George who was then at his intimidating peak, Norton saw his first shot at heavyweight glory end in stunning failure. It was actually based on this fight that many predicted a similar fate for Ali when he met the all-conquering Foreman seven months later in the unforgettable “Rumble in the jungle.” As we know, however, Ali, despite having struggled with the man George so effortlessly destroyed, was able to score a KO of his own in Zaire. Ali was on top of the world. Norton, on the other hand, was back to being a mere contender.

Throughout the remainder of 1974, until July of ’76, Norton tallied up a further seven wins, including a revenge victory KO over Garcia in the summer of ’75. Then, in arguably his most well known fight, he met Ali again - this time for the heavyweight championship of the world. This fight, held in Yankee Stadium in September of ’76, remains one of the most controversial fights in heavyweight title history. Norton, boxing extremely well, appeared to most to have done enough to have taken Muhammad’s crown. But not one of the three judges agreed with such thinking. Incredibly - at the end of what was probably the closest looking of all the Ali-Norton fights - a unanimous decision was scored for the ageing Ali. Norton was crushed and actually burst into tears afterwards. He simply could not believe it. It was after this fight that Norton later said he stopped trusting boxing judges.

There was one more truly epic fight to come in Ken’s career. After scoring three wins in 1977, including an elimination bout with Jimmy Young which he won on points, Ken wound up being proclaimed as the WBC world champ. Ali had lost to novice Leon Spinks, of course, and “Neon Leon” chose to box Ali in a return instead of the Norton-young winner. Based on this the WBC handed their title to Norton. Kenny was at last the heavyweight king - of a sort. Everyone still looked at Ali (who avenged his loss to Spinks late in 1978) as the real champ, but Norton’s heart and courage could never be discounted - not after his superb fight with the unbeaten Larry Holmes in his sole title defence, which came in June of ’78.

A truly great fight ensued, with one of the most memorable final rounds in heavyweight history. Both men gave it their all in that final three minutes, as they had in the previous forty-two. At the end, though, despite a courageous effort by defending champ Norton, it was Larry Holmes who won the superb fight courtesy of a split verdict. Norton’s title days, both as champion and challenger, had come to an end.

Ken fought on for a further five fights - winning two, losing two (including a one round KO loss to the murderous punching Earnie Shavers) and drawing one. His final fight - a brutal one round blast-out by new sensation Gerry Cooney, in May of 1981 - should never have happened. Norton hung up his gloves after his ill-fated decision to box “Gentleman Gerry” while pushing forty years of age.

Going out in fifty-four painful seconds to the new “Great White Hope” was not how it should have ended for a great boxer like Kenny Norton - the man who, according to more than a few people, defeated the incomparable Muhammad Ali three times!

Norton’s final record: 42-7-1(33). He was WBC heavyweight champion from November 1977 to June 1978.

Article posted on 30.12.2011

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