Ken Norton’s name is forever linked to that of Muhammed Ali. Norton fought Ali three times and handed him his second defeat of his career, the result of a broken jaw-fracturing punch in the first round. Asked in a 1992 interview what he thought he would be remembered for, “Norton replied “Fighting Ali.” Nevertheless, Norton was a key player in the heavyweight wars of the 1960s and 70s. He was an aggressive fighter who could move with confusing fluidity and who commanded a dangerous repertoire of punches. He was a great puncher on the inside who could offer many different looks to opponents with his crab defense and switching stances.
Ken Norton was a fixture in the heavyweight ranks during a time that many consider the finest era of the division. Norton, who turned pro in 1967, burst onto the scene in 1973 when he earned a split decision and the NABF heavyweight title with a 12-round decision over Muhammad Ali, which was only Ali’s second loss.
Unlike many fighters, Norton did not grow up boxing or dreaming of becoming a fighter. He played football, basketball, and track in high school and received a scholarship to Northeast Missouri State, which he attended for two years. It wasn’t until Norton joined the Marine Corps that he began boxing. In the Marines, Norton compiled a 24-2 amateur record and won the All-Marine heavyweight title three times. He also won a title in the Pan American Games Trials.
Norton turned pro in 1967 at the relatively advanced age of 24 with a knockout of Grady Brazell. He fought primarily in the Southern California area and won his first sixteen fights before suffering a knockout loss to Jose Luis Garcia, the first ranked contender he ever faced. This was a loss he avenged five years later. By 1972, Norton appeared in the number nine slot in The Ring’s annual ranking of top contenders.
In March 1973, Norton faced Ali for the NABF heavyweight title in a fight broadcast on national television from the San Diego Sports Arena. Ali had failed to train adequately for the match and had trouble avoiding Norton’s advances. Norton, who was in top form, broke Ali’s jaw in the first round. Although Ali went the distance, the injury took its toll and Norton won on a split decision. Ali won the rematch in Los Angeles in September with a blistering final round. Again the final result was a split decision. Norton then faced George Foreman in March 1974 in Caracas for the heavyweight championship. Foreman easily won, knocking out Norton in the second round.
Norton beat Jerry Quarry in New York in 1975 with a fifth round TKO to take the NABF heavyweight title. Seeking a world title, Norton again faced Ali, acknowledged as champion once more after a victory over Foreman. The fight was held in Yankee Stadium in 1976 in front of 30,296 fans. Norton led early on but Ali recovered and won a unanimous decision, though Norton clearly believed that he had won the fight.
In 1977, Norton knocked out Duane Bobick in one round and decisioned Jimmy Young in a WBC title-elimination fight. When Leon Spinks didn’t honor a committment to defend the title against Norton. Instead Spinks opted for a more lucrative rematch with Ali.
the WBC stripped Spinks and awarded the belt to Norton by virtue of his win over Young. Norton then met the clever Jimmy Young. The winner to be proclaimed “champion” by the WBC. Norton won a dull decision over Young and he was bestowed the WBC crown.
Norton defended his awarded championship against Larry Homes and lost a close decision in a very exciting
Ken would again try to reinvent himself but his age had finally caught up to him. A wild brawl to secure a draw with journeyman Scott LeDoux pretty much spelled the end. He did comeback briefly to edge Tex Cobb, but that only led to disaster as a red hot Gerry Cooney put a final exclamation point on Ken’s career with a brutal one round knockout.
Norton’s pressing style combined with a hook to the body and a right uppercut to the head made him a formidable foe. But after losing to Earnie Shavers and Gerry Cooney in one-round knockouts, he retired.