When there is any talk of the greatest era of heavyweight boxing, the name Ken Norton has to be mentioned. Ken was a mainstay in the ratings throughout the 1970’s and he briefly wore the World Boxing Council version of the heavyweight title. Norton of course is remembered most for his famous trilogy with Muhammad Ali.
Norton was born on August 9,1943 in Jacksonville, Illinois. He was always an exceptional athlete but didn’t turn to boxing until he joined the Marine Corp. He won the All Marine heavyweight championship three times and compiled a 24-2 amateur record. After being passed over to represent the United States in the Pan American Games, Ken opted to turn professional. He made his debut on November 14,1967 by halting Grady Brazell in the fifth round in San Diego. It would be the first of sixteen straight victories for Ken. During the streak Norton would gain experience beating veterans like Bill McMurray and Aaron Eastling.
It would all come crashing down on July 2,1970 at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Norton would meet a lanky heavyweight from Venezuela named Jose Luis Garcia. Based on appearance it looked like the muscular Norton would steamroll his opponent. Garcia though possessed fast hands and he could bang. In a major upset Garcia took out Ken in the eighth round. It was back to the drawing board for Norton.
Ken would begin to see a hypnotist and this seemed to work as he rallied to win thirteen straight contests. Norton moved up the heavyweight rankings with two wins over the capable James J.Woody. He defeated rugged Jack O’Halloran in a thriller and stopped the talented Henry Clark. On March 31,1973 Ken would meet former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in San Diego. Ali had failed to regain the heavyweight title on March 8,1971 against Joe Frazier in the “Fight Of The Century”. Ali was now taking on all comers to establish himself as the “People’s Champion” and entice Frazier into a rematch. Norton was viewed as just another opponent and Ali was listed as a 5 to 1 favorite. Ken hadn’t read the script though and he came out and forced the fight. Ali suffered a broken jaw in one of the early rounds but he gamely fought on. This day Ken was too much for Muhammad and Norton was awarded a well deserve decision. Along with it came the North American Boxing Federation heavyweight title.
Ali and Norton would meet again on September 10,1973 at the Inglewood Forum. Ali vowed to be in better shape and he was. Muhammad swept the early rounds but as the bout progressed Norton came on strong. At the end of twelve rounds Ali’s early lead held up and he won the verdict. After giving “The Greatest” twelve rounds of pure hell Ken was given a shot at the heavyweight title. The man in the other corner would be undefeated George Foreman. The power punching Foreman had destroyed Joe Frazier in two rounds to capture the title. At this point in his career George looked unbeatable. The fight would take place March 26,1974 in Caracas, Venezuela. After a quiet first round George would lower the boom in round two. Again it was back to the drawing board for Ken.
The two fights with Ali still left Norton as a very marketable heavyweight. Ken came back with a vengeance. He took apart Boone Kirkman and then in 1975 he scored knock out wins over Jerry Quarry and former conqueror Garcia. In 1976 he had inside the distance wins over Pedro Lovell, Ron Stander and Larry Middleton. In 1974 Ali upset Foreman in the famous “Rumble In The Jungle” to regain the championship. Now Ken was considered the #1 threat to his title. Their rubber match took place on September 28,1976 at Yankee Stadium. After fifteen see saw rounds Ali was given a highly controversial decision to retain his crown. Norton was heartbroken but he vowed to get Ali one more time.
In 1977 Ken reinforced his status as the number one contender by demolishing unbeaten Duane Bobick in one round. Later in the year he met the crafty Jimmy Young in a World Boxing Council heavyweight eliminator. The fight with Young took place on November 5,1977 in Las Vegas. In an extremely close affair Norton edged Young and Ken was now Ali’s mandatory challenger. In 1978 a fading Ali would lose his title to unbeaten but untested Leon Spinks in a huge upset. Spinks was now obligated to defend the title against Norton. Leon though would opt for a much more lucrative rematch with Ali. The WBC then stripped Spinks of the title and awarded it to Norton based on his win over Young. Finally Norton was a champion.
Ken’s tenure as champion was short lived. On June 9,1978 in Las Vegas Norton would lose a razor close verdict to unbeaten Larry Holmes in a truly classic battle. Ken would fight on hoping for another crack at the title. He stopped classy Randy Stephens in three rounds. Then disaster struck in the form of Earnie Shavers powerful fists. Shavers blasted Norton out in one round derailing any hopes of a Holmes rematch. Next Ken took on rough and tumble Scott LeDoux. Norton was winning handily but faded after taking a thumb to the eye. Norton was knocked down twice in the tenth and final round but hung on until the bell. The fight ended in a draw. Ken would retire but then come back a year later to face undefeated Randall “Tex” Cobb. Norton was able to out box the plodding Cobb and win the decision. Next for Norton would be the unbeaten punching sensation Gerry Cooney. There was already a great demand for Cooney to meet champion Larry Holmes. Norton would supply Gerry with his toughest test to date. The test ended in the first round as Cooney scored a brutal knock out. That ended the career of Ken Norton.
In all Norton had fifty professional fights. His record was a very respectable 42-7-1. Ken scored thirty three knockouts and was stopped four times. He met three champions in Ali, Foreman and Holmes. He also faced eight boxers who challenged for the title. He was among the elite heavyweights for nearly a decade.