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
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
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

Maths Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering