Ken Norton: 1943-2013, Heavyweight Champ and “The Fairest of Them All”

One boxing legend reflects on another

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From left: Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali at Yankee Stadium in New York City, on Sept. 28, 1976.

In the mid 1960s, there was a lot of talk about a great fighter out of the amateur ranks named Ken Norton. Some of the guys on the 1968 Olympic team knew him from the armed forces team, and they spoke very highly of him. If Norton hadn’t gone pro in 1967, he probably would have been an Olympic gold medalist. When I met him, he didn’t have any chip on his shoulder at all. I was impressed immediately, and I said, boy, he sure is a nice guy.

Norton had a weird style of crossing his right hand over his face and throwing a wild left hand. But he had a purpose with that. You couldn’t get out of the way. He would bend down, you’d follow him with your head, and he’d throw that overhand right. He didn’t put a lot of body into his punches, which meant if he missed, he was never out of position, and he could hit you again. When I would swing, I’d do it with all my might and almost tumble over. Ken Norton would swing just with his arm. He’d hit with his fists, but there was a lot of power behind those punches, and he had a record filled with knockouts. He’d hit you hard, then he’d hit you with five or six more. Eventually he would wear you down with punches. It was a very good style.

I think that’s what caused Muhammad Ali a lot of trouble. In 1973, I went down to San Diego and saw the fight where Norton broke Ali’s jaw. It was an unbelievable fight. No one knocked out Muhammad Ali with one punch. You had to throw a lot of punches. So Norton hit Ali with one shot, hit him with another, hit him with another and just eventually wore him down.

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I should have studied the film of Norton’s fight against Ali before I fought him in Caracas in 1974. He came out with me, and he threw his left hook with all of his might. He did it once, then he did it two or three times, something he’d never done before. I ducked under and made him miss. He’d exposed his body, and I was able to get in a hard body shot. If he had stuck to his regular style of not putting too much power into one shot, I think I would have had a nightmare that evening.

All of us were called handsome; Ali, they even called pretty. But Norton was movie star handsome. Boxers are always saying, “Take off your shirt,” but if Norton walked into the room, everyone kept their shirt on. I was in a theater once with a girlfriend seeing Mandingo, the first big movie Norton starred in, and when he came on screen, took off his shirt and looked into that camera, I thought, “I will not introduce him to her!” The mirror, mirror on the wall would have said, “Ken Norton, he’s the fairest of them all.”

Prior to our fight and afterwards he’d joke, “George of the Jungle” teasing me. He wasn’t afraid, but he didn’t try and stare me down. He had decided he did not want to be one of those crude fellas who stared you down. Norton had served in the Marines, and a lot of his friends came back from Vietnam wounded; a lot died early. When he lost those decisions against Ali, he never said a word about him. That’s what made me admire him even more. He never said an ill word about Muhammed Ali. Even though it would have been fashionable to say it at the time, Norton never opened his mouth.

You can look down the heavyweight ranks from A to Z, and he was the most naturally all-muscular boxer we’d ever seen. His fights with Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes were the most outstanding 15-rounders in the history of the sport. Ali’s fights with Joe Frazier were exciting, but there was nothing like his give and take with Norton. Ken Norton will be remembered for fighting in the most action-filled 15-rounders in heavyweight history, but more than that, he was a wonderful guy.

— as told to Nate Rawlings

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