Ken Norton has passed away in a Las Vegas care facility. A few days earlier across town, Floyd Mayweather Jr put in another performance to support his claim to be the best ever. For most people, there is only one fighter who can be referred to as “The Greatest”- a man with whom the life and times of Ken Norton will always be inextricably linked.
We love sport because of the shock factor: the incidents that get us out of our seats or scratching our heads. With its brutal outcomes and split second flashes that can make or break a man, boxing is the extreme example of this. One moment can define a boxer forever. For Ken Norton, that moment came on March 31st, 1973.
Muhammad Ali was a figure who transcended his sport. The sublime footwork and hand speed were just a fraction of the story. Heavyweight boxing had long been as much about politics as punching and the motormouth poet had become a symbol of the hot button issues of the time: Vietnam and black empowerment. Loved and hated in equal measure- his ring appearances were events of international significance.
Norton came to the San Diego Arena unfancied in what was seen as a glorified tune up. Ali had clocked up 10 wins since defeat against Joe Frazier in the ‘Fight of the Century’ and there were huge fights waiting to fall into his lap.
The world turned upside down in the first round, Norton broke Ali’s jaw. For the rest of the fight, the underdog pushed forward; throwing looping hooks off his unconventional jab cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd. After twelve close rounds, Ali ruefully rubbed his damaged mouth as the judges scores were read out. The roof was blown off the International Sports Arena when the final card confirmed a split decision win for Norton; but the ultimate joy was yet to come for the Ali haters.
ABC’s Howard Cossell initially ignored the victor and approached Ali for a comment. His questions went unanswered due to the injury. Bundini Brown screamed: “He can’t talk” before he helped Ali away. The prayers of a large section of White America had been answered. Not only had Ali lost; the mouth that had taunted them for a decade had been shut.
Many thought that this was the end of the road- a sentiment summed up by Cossell from the ring.
“He [Ali] has a broken jaw, he is a beaten man and he is a broken fighter. And so, all of the millions of dollars that loomed before him with a Foreman match or a Frazier rematch are suddenly gone. What was once a very great fighter becomes now part of fistic history. “
Ali edged another tight decision in the rematch and went on to reclaim the belt and write new pages of his legend in Manila and the Jungle. Kenny Norton was no Buster Douglas and went on to battle the murderers row who were contenders for the supreme prize in sport in its most competitive ever era. If he had been around today, Norton would undoubtedly have held a world crown for a while. He fought Ali for a third time at Yankee Stadium in 1976, but was on the wrong end of a debatable decision.
Ken did briefly have possession of a title. He acquired the World Boxing Council strap in a thoroughly modern way. Leon Spinks chose a big money rematch with Ali rather than a fight with number one contender Norton. The WBC stripped him of his belt and retroactively declared the eliminator that Norton had won against Jimmy Young a title fight. After picking up the title outside the ring thanks to alphabet soup politicking, he lost it first time back. His fifteen round encounter with Larry Holmes was one of the finest Heavyweight title fights of all time. Once again, the decision went against Norton.
Outside the ropes, Norton’s charm and good looks earned him starring roles in the movies- notably Mandingo and Drum. Rumour has it he was the original choice to play Apollo Creed in the Rocky films.
To boxing people, the part that Norton played in what is now seen as a golden age of the sport will long be remembered. To the wider world, he will always be known as the man who did something that the most powerful nation on earth could not do. Ken Norton- the man who silenced Muhammad Ali.