Ken Norton: World champion boxer who fought three epic battles against Muhammad Ali

 

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.

Steve Bunce

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own