On this day back in 1978, two heavyweights at opposite ends of their careers gave the sport a classic fight, a fight that many fans and historians say has the greatest 15th and final round in heavyweight history. Larry Holmes, on the way up, and Ken Norton, who on this hot night gave his final great performance. Together, Holmes and Norton put on what has been called the last great fight of that talent-rich decade that was the 1970s.
Everyone agrees Holmes WS15 Norton is one of the greatest heavyweight fights ever, but where does it rank in the Top 10? It’s down to opinion, but at the end of this piece you can read one list you may or may not agree with.
First, let’s recall the epic splendour of Holmes Vs. Norton.
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.
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. 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 heavyweight title fight? Most likely not.
So here’s a stab at listing the ten greatest heavyweight fights of all-time:
1: Muhammad Ali Vs. Joe Frazier III. “The Thrilla in Manila.”
2: George Foreman Vs. Ron Lyle.
3: Jack Dempsey Vs. Luis Angel Firpo
4: Riddick Bowe Vs. Evander Holyfield I
5: Larry Holmes Vs. Ken Norton
6: Joe Frazier Vs. Muhammad Ali I
7: Rocky Marciano Vs. Jersey Joe Walcott I
8: Tyson Fury Vs. Deontay Wilder III
9: James Douglas Vs. Mike Tyson
10: Ike Ibeabuchi Vs. David Tua
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.”