In Memoriam: Ken Norton
He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do.
—From a poem by Etheridge Knight
Ken Norton passed away yesterday at the age of 70. He was my favorite fighter.
Growing up in the Bronx in the ’70s you almost couldn’t help but be a sports fanatic. The Mets had their magical run in 1969 and made it back to the Series again in ’73, the Knicks won what is still their last NBA championship and remained an Eastern conference force through half the decade, and George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and the Yankees were busy forging their Bronx Zoo identity. But perhaps no sport so dominated the 1970s consciousness as boxing.
It’s true, the era that brought us inflation and disco was also arguably the heyday of the sweet science. While guys like Roberto Duran, Wilfred Benitez, and Alexis Arguello were already busy carving out their legends, the 1976 Summer Olympics made American boxers Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks, and Leon Spinks household names. There were fierce rivalries in just about every weight class. But nothing captured the public imagination like the Heavyweights. On my block everyone had their favorites. Some guys worshipped Ali, while others saw themselves in the relentless determination of Smokin’ Joe Frazier. George Foreman, the hard-punching gold medalist from the 1968 Olympics, had his share of supporters too. There were other recognizable and formidable contenders with names like Quarry and Shavers and Young. But my guy was Ken Norton.
A former United States Marine, Norton seemed cut out of block of marble. “His arms are bigger than my legs,” as my Dad used to say. And he had the wingspan of a condor. He racked up three Marine Heavyweight Titles before turning pro in 1967. Norton’s early career had a similar arc to other fighters of his generation as he compiled a 29-1 record in his first 30 bouts against an assortment of journeymen and no-names. It wasn’t until he faced off against Ali in 1973 that I, and many others, really began taking notice. Norton, fighting in an unorthodox cross-armed crab style, broke Ali’s jaw en route to a 12-round split decision win for the not-so-coveted NABF Championship. It was always rare witnessing anyone get the better of Ali. Later that year Ali won it right back, also in split decision fashion. Despite their obvious differences, as a pair of fighters Norton and Ali were well matched. They fought the last fight of their trilogy in Yankee Stadium in 1976. Though it was pretty much in my backyard, I was way too young to attend. It was an epic bout, but Ali took a very controversial 15-round decision. It absolutely crushed me. All these years (and countless viewings) later you still can’t convince me that Norton wasn’t robbed.
Like so many heavyweights of the era, Norton fought just about everyone. The only hole on his boxing resume being Joe Frazier. In 1977 he would finally win the WBC Heavyweight title that had eluded him with a win over Jimmy Young, only to lose it a year later via split decision to up-and-comer Larry Holmes. It was yet another disappointing and highly-questionable decision going against the champ. After that, Norton’s only win of note came in the form of a first-round knockout of Earnie Shavers in 1979. But there would be no more title shots. His final bout was sad first round TKO at the hands of Gerry Cooney. Norton was 38 then and although he still looked like Hercules, he was a shell of his former self. Still, I watched every undefended blow hoping against hope that my guy would find it in himself to unleash just one more wicked uppercut for old time’s sake. It never came.
When I read yesterday that Ken Norton had passed away, I almost couldn’t believe it. He was my guy. My Heavyweight. He beat Muhammad Ali TWICE! And he beat Larry Holmes TOO! I don’t care what anyone says. Rest in peace, Champ.