Mention Ken Norton, Sr., who died earlier this week at the age of 70, and boxing fans will recall one of the leading figures of heavyweight boxing’s glory years. But, perhaps, the title that will remain synonymous is the man who broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw in 1973 in the first of their trilogy of bouts.
With the possible exception of Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Ken Norton was Muhammad Ali’s most troublesome foe. Ali never did figure out Norton’s style in 39 rounds of boxing. In the end, all that separated Ali from the former Marine was a single round, the 15th, of their third fight on a cold, chaotic night in the old Yankee Stadium on September 28, 1976. The fact that Norton — whose corner believed he had already won the fight – did not fight aggressively until the last 30 seconds of the round makes the story of the two fighters even more compelling.
Norton credited much of his success to the great trainer, Eddie Futch. When the two began working together in 1967 Norton was raw and awkward, but incredibly athletic. A solid 215-pound heavyweight, Norton had a bodybuilder’s physique, massive chest and arms, a narrow waist, long arms, and quick hands. But it was his adherence to Futch’s demanding training regimen—which included dozens of no-holds barred with his training partner, then champion Joe Frazier— that molded him into a world-class fighter.
In February 1970 Norton was profiled by Ring magazine after being knocked out by Venezuela’s Jose-Luis Garcia in his first defeat. It was after the loss that Norton read the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and began seeing a hypnotist, Dr. Michael Dean. With positive thinking and Futch’s expert tutelage and handling, Norton continued his climb through a tough heavyweight division.
Most ranked boxers dodged Norton, which left him impoverished and contemplating robbing a bank. That’s when he was offered a nationally televised against Ali. Norton was such an unknown that advertisers were afraid the fight wouldn’t last long enough to sell all their spots. Howard Cosell, who called the fight for ABC, said he didn’t think the fight should be licensed.
But the lightly regarded Norton was confident and unfazed. And there was good reason: three years earlier Norton had sparred with Ali, and got the better of the former champ.
When an embarrassed Ali showed up the next day looking for not a training session but a fight, Eddie Futch—Norton’s trainer— refused. It was then that Futch told Norton that he had the ability to one day beat Ali.
On fight day Ali entered the ring dressed in a sequined robe given to him by Elvis Presley, with “People’s Choice” monogrammed on the back. Under-trained and over confident, Ali had no idea what fate awaited him.
Norton fought from a semi-crouch, using his distinctive arms-crossed defense. Near the end of the second round, Norton backed Ali near the ropes and fired an overhand right that landed solidly to Ali’s lower left jaw.
Ali’s jaw was broken and his corner tried to get him to quit, but the former champ refused And while was able to frustrate Norton in spurts, it was the underdog who gradually took command on the way to a decision.
The rematch was six months later, and Ali got into perhaps the best shape of his post-exile career. Like the first fight, this one came down to the final round. The fight was so close that at the closing bell a clearly annoyed Ali, not knowing if he had done enough to win, pushed his trainer, Bundini Brown, away with a glove and then punched his corner man in the head. Bundini, in turn, threw a punch at Ali’s photographer, Howard Bingham.
Yet Ali won.
Norton won greater respect that day, but wound up losing his trainer, Futch, who was blamed for over training his fighter. Norton’s managers, Aaron Rivkind and Bob Biron, demanded that Futch choose either Norton or Joe Frazier, the other fighter he trained.
In 1974 Norton looked lost and lethargic while being battered by the champion, George Foreman. After being knocked down for the third time in the second round, Norton was so dazed that he actually looked off in the distance for his former trainer, Futch, who was at the fight.
Norton followed that defeat with big wins against the likes of Jerry Quarry, Duane Bobick and Jimmy Young. He lost razor thin decisions to Ali and Larry Holmes, and suffering KO loses to Earnie Shavers and, finally, Gerry Cooney.
Named the WBC champion in early 1978 when Leon Spinks refused to fight him, Norton has the distinction of being the only heavyweight champion never to have won a title bout.
How should we remember Norton? Let’s let Norton tell us, in his own words (go to the 34 minute mark of the video):