43 Years Ago: When Holmes And Norton Went Through Hell; And Gave Us An Incomparable Heavyweight Classic

43 years ago, at the sports pavilion at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, heavyweights Larry Holmes and Ken Norton gave us one of the greatest heavyweight title fights of all-time – and arguably THE greatest 15th round in heavyweight history. Norton, defending the title he had been awarded by default (Leon Spinks, who had upset the one and only Muhammad Ali in February of the same year, was stripped of his WBC title, this for taking a lucrative rematch with Ali and not defending against Norton), met the unbeaten Holmes; a fighter best known for having been Ali’s sparring partner.

No-one expected a great fight, certainly not an epic, all-time great fight. But this is what Holmes, 28, and Norton, 34, gave their sport on the evening of June 9, 1978. It was a terrific fight from the off, with switching momentums, plenty of leather slung from both warriors, and, crucially, an equal number of rounds won by champ and challenger. This fight came down to the very last round, to the final three minutes.

By this time, both men had almost given their all. Almost. Talk about a second wind, a third wind, maybe even a fourth wind. Holmes and Norton found out just how deeply they could dig on this night. Both men sensed the fight, and with it the title, was up for grabs going into round 15, and both men were willing to go through sheer hell in order to win.

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Both men took turns hammering one another in that fateful 15th. Norton looked to be the more fatigued fighter of the two yet he came out and went right at Holmes as the bell signalled the start of their collective mission. Norton, desperately trying to keep hold of the belt he had never won in the ring, had the better of things in the first half of The Round of the Century, his rights cracking into Holmes’ head; one shot relieving Larry of his mouthpiece. Then Holmes, a fighter who had been stung by talk of him being a “quitter,” and of not having enough heart, came back. It’s not known which drove Holmes on more: the desire to become world champion, or the aching desire to silence his critics.

Holmes succeeded in finding a slightly bigger shovel than Norton – or a heavier-hitting one. Holmes staggered Norton, appearing to come close to sending the defending champion down. Norton, hurt and on the verge of real exhaustion, somehow hung tough to the very end; the bitter end. And it was bitter for Norton, the 15th round and with it the fight going to Holmes, this by agonisingly close scores of 143-142 twice, the third judge awarding the fight to Norton by the same score. That 15th round had seen more punches thrown and landed by Norton, but heavier, more visibly effective punches had been landed by Holmes.

Has there ever been a greater 15th round in a world heavyweight championship fight? Very probably, no, there has not been.

Holmes recalled the Norton fight when speaking with this writer:

“That was my toughest fight, no doubt,” Holmes said a few years back.

“That was 15 rounds of non-stop fighting. Kenny Norton was a very tough guy – especially as six days before the fight I had pulled a muscle in my left arm. I knew I had to keep it secret and also make the left arm work like never before. Of course, I’m known for having the great left jab, and in training, when people watched me train, I had to pretend I was just working on my legs, and that was the reason I wasn’t throwing the jab. Thank God it worked.”

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Esteemed writer Jerry Izenberg, who covered all the heavyweight greats, says there is no question about it, Holmes-Norton round 15 is the greatest heavyweight round he ever saw:

“The greatest 15th round in a heavyweight championship fight was the Larry Holmes-Ken Norton fight,” Izenberg told this writer this year.

“Both guys had a handicap going into that fight. Holmes had a torn muscle in his left bicep. Holmes’ money-punch was his left jab. Norton, he was tough and strong but he could never handle, or stand up to, a big puncher. In this fight, Norton’s team had managed to persuade him that Holmes was not a big puncher. Holmes didn’t care anymore about getting hit in his bicep in the last round, he knew the fight, the title, was up for grabs in the last round of the fight!

“Holmes knew he had to throw his best punch, his left, and the hell with it. They both knew they had to give it everything they had. Everything. Norton knew he could go toe-to-toe with Holmes, and they both really went at it, hard! Holmes almost stopped Norton at one point. That was the best 15th and final round I ever saw.”

Doubtless, many of us agree with the author of ‘Once There Were Giants.’ Holmes and Norton sure were giants of the heavyweight division.