Never has a pound-for-pound star, closing in on greatness at the time, been so bizarrely derailed. Terry Norris, a super-fast puncher with a shaky chin combined with an unfortunate tendency to break the rules, versus Luis Santana, a grizzled veteran with a solid set of whiskers and an instinctive ability at grabbing victory any way he could.
Match them together, as happened three times in the mid-1990s, and a boxing trilogy that some would say is best forgotten went down. But along with those who have cast it from their minds, are fight fans who cannot forget what transpired during those wild and crazy ten rounds.
Norris, at his peak and ruling the world as WBC 154 pound champ for a second time, signed to make what was generally looked at as a straightforward defense against Santana of the Dominican Republic; the fight set for the Plaza de Toros in Mexico City. 35-year-old Santana had been around for a while, dropping a decision against common opponent Simon Brown in a previous title shot at welterweight (Brown having sensationally KO’d Norris in an upset and then being soundly outpointed in the return), yet as Ferdie Pacheco said on air for Showtime, the challenger looked to be way over his head.
Norris was slinging out fast leather, winning the first two rounds with ease. Then, in the third, the 27-year-old’s dodgy chin made its first appearance. Santana got home with a shot to the head, and Norris did a little dance, his legs briefly betraying him. Then, bundled down, Norris was given a count. He was furious. Pacheco was incredulous.
And then, in the fourth round, Norris lost a point for butting Santana, the blood gushing from the challenger’s forehead. It was quickly becoming a bad night for “Terrible Terry.”
It would get much worse.
In the fifth, in command, and looking again for the KO, Norris hit Santana with a left-hand rabbit shot. Santana collapsed flat on his back, his arms outstretched. Norris instantly suspected his rival was attempting to steal his title by way of a DQ. Santana, though, did look stricken, his closed eyes racing around in his skull. Pacheco was disgusted at the way the laid-out fighter was left unattended by medical personal for a minute, after minute, after minute. Indeed, it looked like amateur hour in Mexico.
Finally, Santana was stretchered from the ring – the new champion! Norris could not hide his disgust. “He was faking it. His eyes were wide open, but when the doctor came to him, he closed them,” the ex-champ said.
And so to the rematch.
Things would be righted in swift order in fight-two, the thinking went. Instead, more theatre of the wholly unexpected was witnessed. This time fighting in Las Vegas, Norris and Santana left fans with another jaw-dropper. Norris, angry at losing his belt in the first fight, came out blazing. By far the superior fighter, Norris again used his speed and power to good effect. Santana was down in the second and again in the third. But then, with just the dying seconds of round-three remaining, Norris cracked his rival with a flush bomb on the chin.
Santana resumed the position he had been at the end of the first fight. Norris was inconsolable this time. How could he lose to the same guy twice! But he had, and Norris was now 0-2 to Santana, who again walked (or was stretchered) away as the champion. Norris could only repeat how he had not heard the bell to end the third round.
Fight three now.
The third fight took place in Las Vegas, on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s heavily hyped comeback fight with Peter McNeeley. Surely this time, Norris would get it right. Surely lightning would not strike for the third time! Finally, after smashing Santana to the canvas three times, all of them legally, Norris, indeed removed the thorn from his side. The second-round KO must have been sweet release for Norris.
To this day, however, the debate over whether or not Santana faked his condition in fight-one remains. Santana did a good acting job if he was faking it, that’s for sure. Norris was too overeager with his punches in fights one and two, that’s also for sure.
One wild and weird rivalry in boxing history.