For a fighter who, aside from having so many positively fine assets, “couldn’t take a big punch”, former WBC heavyweight champ Ken Norton sure faced a who’s who of heavyweight bangers – George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, Jerry Quarry (not an all-out banger but a puncher with authority), Larry Holmes (also, no lethal tranquilliser but a solid puncher all the same), Gerry Cooney, and one or two other guys.
Indeed, living legend Foreman remarked about this recently via his twitter page; with “Big George” moved to write how Norton was a fearless warrior who met puncher after puncher, along with great heavyweight after great heavyweight.
That Norton was special goes without saying. Born on this day in 1943, born competitor Norton, a man who truly lived the life of a pro athlete, day in and day out, would very likely have lived to the age of 80 and beyond were it not for the near-fatal car crash he was the victim of in 1986, this five years after he had quit the ring in one piece. Norton was lucky to escape alive, his recovery down to his inner strength, yet the damage did take its toll. And it does beg the question: why do so many famous fighters end up either dying or being damaged due to car smashes, bike accidents, or other high-speed mishaps?
This aside, Norton was a smart guy, in and out of the ring. Serving his country in the marines, Kenny (“May I call you Kenny!”) was born in Jacksonville, and he excelled at sports in high school. A talented football player, Norton wanted to become a policeman or a teacher. Instead, he found boxing. Or boxing found him. After a decent amateur career, topped by the winning of a Pan Am title, a 23 year old Norton went pro.
In time, Norton would be trained by the great Eddie Futch, he would spar with the greater Joe Frazier, and Norton would head-on face the elite of the heavyweight division. It was a genuine shock when 8/1 dog Norton defeated Muhammad Ali in March of 1973, and Norton had indeed arrived. Due to the stoppage loss he had suffered against Jose Luis Garcia three years prior, nobody thought Norton would be able to top “The Greatest.” But Kenny did it and, as he said himself when looking back on the win, he was on “cloud ten….nine wasn’t high enough.”
Norton always gave Ali nothing but hell, as we saw in the rematch (Ali winning a close decision) and in fight-three (Ali being awarded a decision win that was widely viewed as a gift). And Norton showed his greatness in another epic fight that he lost, this the simply fantastic battle he engaged in with Larry Holmes. For the June 1978 war alone, Norton should be, and is, remembered.
Yet Norton managed big wins over: Boone Kirkman, Quarry, Duane Bobick, Jimmy Young, Randy “Tex” Cobb, and Garcia in a revenge meeting.
Norton, who just might have had the most enviable physique of all heavyweight champions, also made a splash on the silver screen, his acting ability displayed in the movies “Drum” and “Mandingo.”
Norton may be labelled by the harsher critics as a ‘paper champion,’ this as he never won the title in the ring; Norton instead being crowned after Ali conqueror Leon Spinks opted against fighting him when Kenny was the WBC mandatory – Norton being elevated to champ on the strength of his win over Young. But nobody who saw Norton fight his heart out against Holmes, Ali (X3) and Young will ever refer to “The Fighting Marine” as anything approaching a fake champ.
Norton was great. Norton was a ‘Champion Forever.’ Ken Norton was a man who deserved to live a much longer life than he did.