Ken Norton was making less than $500 a fight before he was selected as an easy option for Muhammad Ali in what would become the first of arguably boxing's finest heavyweight trilogy. Norton had left the Marine Corps in 1967, turned professional that year and by 1973 was stealing a living as a sparring partner and by travelling light on the circuit and accepting small fees for easy fights.
His record before the first Ali fight was 29 wins from 30 fights against unknown men in tiny halls, mostly in California. It was a cosmetic record and Ali had taken him lightly, even refusing to call the fight off after a golfing accident limited his training camp to three weeks and no roadwork.
"I knew what Ali thought, knew the way his people thought and I knew they had made a mistake," Norton said during a visit to Sheffield in 2000. "I had been sparring with Joe Frazier for three months and I was in great shape for the fight."
Ali had actually sparred briefly with Norton a few years earlier in a gym in Los Angeles and had not been impressed. "I never forgot it," Norton said.
Ali had only the one blemish on his record, a tight loss on points against Frazier, and was chasing the champion at the time, George Foreman, for a world title shot. The Norton fight was a detour, a payday and warm-up for the inevitable Foreman showdown.
Foreman had knocked out Frazier in January 1973 and Norton had possibly played a crucial, neglected and unintentional role in the victory. Norton had been sparring with Frazier before the Foreman fight but when the camp moved to Jamaica, Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, pulled Norton to one side, told him he was relieved of his duties and to "go to the beach and talk to girls". "Eddie could see that Joe lacked drive and he sent me off," Norton said. "I never waited to be asked twice and I truly believe that my boxing career would have been much better and a little longer if I had not had so many women."
In the first Ali fight Norton was relentless, taking a split decision over 12 rounds and breaking Ali's jaw. "He claims it was broken in the first, but I know I did it in the last," Norton said at the end. They were reunited a few hours later at a local hospital after Ali had undergone 90 minutes of surgery to fix his jaw. "I took a nobody and created a monster. I gave him glory," Ali said. The rematch was in Los Angeles six months later and, just like the first time, the fight was decided in the 12th and last round. Ali gained bitter revenge, but Norton was no longer a club fighter, an anonymous scrapper available for 500 bucks a fight and $10 a round for sparring.
Boxing is a funny business and Norton jumped in front of Ali and lost a world title fight to Foreman in Venezuela in 1974 to complete a crazy 12-month period. Norton looked like a star and could now officially fight like one, which meant that offers came from Hollywood, and he was soon a player on the glamour scene. His considerable arms heaved with women wearing furs and smiles. "I had a good time and it was certainly easier than the boxing," he said.
He starred in Mandingo (1975) and its sequel, Drum (1976), playing a slave and performing opposite a list of beautiful actresses including Susan George, Pam Grier and Brenda Sykes. In 2000 he was asked about sleeping with a gorgeous co-star. "Well," Norton said, standing up, adjusting his cowboy hat and sticking out his considerable chest before waiting for a second of silence. "I did what I had to do."
He was still winning inside the ropes and a third and final fight was arranged with Ali, who had won the heavyweight world title back, at Yankee Stadium in New York during the hot summer of 1976, when there was a police strike in the city. Norton had knocked out seven men between the Foreman loss and the last Ali fight; he was the genuine contender, perhaps the last great contender from a period of heavyweight excellence. "The fighters from my era were the greatest group of fighters ever assembled," Norton said. Once again the fight was decided in the 15th and final round and Ali kept his title in front of 33,000 people in the lawless city.
The following year Norton beat Jimmy Young in a 15-round title eliminator and was given the WBC version of the world championship when a rematch between Ali and Leon Spinks was announced; the WBC had stripped the belt from Spinks, who was mandated to fight Norton but declined. It was not the way Norton wanted to become world champion and in 1978, in a fight that remains one of the finest 15 rounds of heavyweight boxing, Norton lost his title in yet another split decision, to Larry Holmes. It was the end of Norton's meaningful boxing career. He died in an Arizona hospital of congestive heart failure.
In 1986 he was involved in a car crash and during his recovery in hospital from a broken jaw, broken leg and fractured skull Ali appeared at the end of his bed. "I couldn't speak, and I just had to watch as he did magic tricks," Norton recalled. "I guess that meant I would be known for more than just breaking Ali's jaw – I always wanted to be remembered as his friend." He will also be remembered as a big part of boxing's greatest decade.
Kenneth Howard Norton, boxer and actor: born Jacksonville, Illinois 9 August 1943; boxed 50 times (42 wins, 7 defeats, 1 draw); married (two sons); died Arizona 18 September 2013.
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