Ken Norton had been there, Gerry Cooney wanted to get there. On this day 40 years ago, these two heavyweight giants who were at wholly different stages of their respective careers, met in New York. What followed proved to be disturbingly memorable. Norton, officially 35 years of age, yet possibly older, was an ex-WBC heavyweight champion; the belt never won in the ring. Norton had been to war with all the greats of his era – Muhammad Ali X3, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Earnie Shavers, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Young.
Norton had not always won the big fights, yet he showed in the Ali fights and in the terrific 15 round epic with Holmes what a great fighter he was. Norton was no paper champion – “Not After That Fight,” screamed one prominent US boxing magazine, the article looking back on the Holmes-Norton classic.
But those fights were a long time ago and they had taken a toll on Norton. Cooney, aged 24 and perfect at 25-0 with all but three of his wins coming by KO, was in the right place at the right time. Having been somewhat cynically matched, most notably against past their best guys like Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young, Cooney was being groomed for stardom. Gerry hated the “Great White Hope” tag that was hurled his way by, shall we say, less than creative promoters and managers, but he was indeed a heavyweight hope.
Cooney possessed a lethal left hook, he was tall and athletic and Cooney had pretty fast hands. Norton, 42-6-1(33) had enormous experience but on the night of May 11, not too much more. It was no way near enough.
Cooney came out fast, stunning the pawing Norton with a right hand to the head and then, in a horrifying blur, Cooney went to work on a swiftly immobilised target. Cooney whipped in some sickening lefts to the head, Norton out of it and slumped in a corner. The referee, Tony Perez, was far to slow in diving in, allowing a defenceless Norton to take at least three, if not four unnecessary shots – hard, damaging shots to the head.
It was all over after just :54 of the opening round.
To this day, Cooney has a hard time watching the fight, so brutal was his own handywork. Norton never fought again, whereas Cooney, an international star but one in need of far more experience, was made to wait 13 months before he fought again. When Cooney’s next fight did come, it was a world heavyweight title fight with Larry Holmes he was no way near ready or equipped for.
But on the night of 40 years ago today, Cooney was a wrecking machine, he was a star and he seemed to be on his way towards greatness. Cooney gave us the most devastating KO scored by a heavyweight in the 1980s.