June 9, 1978 – Caesars Palace, Las Vegas.
Unbeaten and, to his own disgust, largely ignored heavyweight contender Larry Holmes was getting a shot at the WBC crown. The far more well known and appreciated Ken Norton, who had been “handed” the belt that had been stripped from Leon Spinks ( who had upset the one and only Muhammad Ali and had opted to face Ali again, thus being relieved of his belt) was making his first defence.
What followed was a simply fantastic 15-round battle between two well-conditioned, determined and hungry, hungry fighters.
Holmes and Norton had a healthy dislike for one another and neither man – one at the beginning of a prime that would prove to be surprisingly long, the other at the tail-end of a long and largely excellent career – was willing to give a single inch. The large crowd outdoors in Vegas (celebrity faces from the world of entertainment and politics aplenty) witnessed a fight today’s fans yearn for.
Holmes, slightly hampered by a muscle tear in his left arm – his most important lever as Larry’s jab was such an effective weapon – came out strong and fast. Norton, as was his custom, warmed to the battle as the rounds wore on. And how these three-minute sessions seemed to absolutely fly by. This one was going to be special, the knowledge fight fans could sense this and quickly.
There were no knockdowns, no blood, neither man was ever noticeably wobbled or staggered – yet this fight had everything else: a wicked pace set and maintained throughout, an incredible amount of punches thrown and landed from both sides (long before the days of the now familiar punch-stat graphics on screen), scarcely a clinch to be seen and, by way of a stunning finish to end all stunning finishes to a prize fight, THE greatest 15th round in heavyweight history.
The fact that Holmes and Norton found, from somewhere, the energy and wherewithal to pound away at each other for each and every second of the final three-minutes still amazes as much as it delights fight fans. The Hagler-Hearns opening round from 1985 is rightfully celebrated as one of the best of all-time, yet the two middleweights were fresh, full of fire and not having to contend with fatigue. Holmes and Norton had waged war under the unforgiving Vegas sun and heat for the better part of an hour. Where did they get the energy, the mutual third or fourth wind from!
To add to the drama, the fight was all-even going into the last round (not that either man knew it) and the result and the crown rested on the final session. Both men perhaps sensed this, as they dug as deep as can be imagined, raining blow after blow on each other. Norton came close to succumbing to sheer exhaustion yet he bit down and somehow made it to the finish line, and there can never have been a more depleted pair of top-level big men, not ever.
Holmes had shaded the last round and with it the fight. Ali’s former sparring partner had done it – he was heavyweight champion. The fact that almost all fans still recognised Spinks (soon to be Ali, in his revenge rematch) as the “real” champion could not and did not dilute either Holmes’ great victory or the epic fight itself.
Norton is sadly no longer with us. For Holmes the tributes and the accolades are currently pouring in, and it’s down to this unforgettable fight.