Ken Norton, a Championship Fighter Who Broke Ali’s Jaw, Is Dead at 70
Ken Norton, who fought three memorable fights with Muhammad Ali, breaking his jaw in winning their first bout, then losing twice, and who went on to become the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, died Wednesday in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nev. He was 70.
(Associated Press photo)
His death was confirmed by his son Ken Jr., an assistant coach with the N.F.L.’s Seattle Seahawks and a pro linebacker for 13 seasons, The Associated Press said. Norton had been in poor health for several years after sustaining a series of strokes, The A.P. reported.
Norton defeated Ali on a 12-round split decision in 1973 to capture the North American Boxing Federation heavyweight title. Norton was an exceptionally muscular 6 feet 2 inches and 220 pounds, but a decided underdog in that first Ali fight.
“Ali thought it would be an easy fight,” Norton’s former manager, Gene Kilroy, was quoted by The A.P. as saying. “But Norton was unorthodox. Instead of jabbing from above like most fighters, he would put his hand down and jab up at Ali.”
Kilroy said that after the fight, Norton visited Ali at the hospital where he was getting his broken jaw wired, and Ali told him he never wanted to fight him again.
But the second bout in their trilogy came six months later when Ali rallied to win a narrow split decision. In their final bout, Ali retained his World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association titles when he defeated Norton on a decision that was unanimous but booed by many in the crowd of more than 30,000 at Yankee Stadium in September 1976.
“I was never the same fighter after that,” Norton told Red Smith of The New York Times in October 1979. “I never trained so hard again, never could put the same feeling into it. I was at my best that night, in the best shape I ever was.”
In 1977, Norton knocked out the previously unbeaten Duane Bobick in the first round and defeated Jimmy Young in a 15-round split decision in a W.B.C. title elimination series and became the mandatory challenger for the winner of the coming fight between Ali and Leon Spinks. Spinks defeated Ali for the championship but shunned Norton for his first defense in favor of a rematch with Ali. The W.B.C. stripped Spinks of the title and awarded it to Norton.
Norton made his first defense of the W.B.C. title in 1978 against Larry Holmes and lost by a 15-round split decision in one of boxing’s most exciting fights.
Kenneth Howard Norton was born Aug. 9, 1943, in Jacksonville, Ill., and starred in high school football, basketball and track. He attended Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) on a football scholarship but was hampered by a shoulder injury in his first two seasons and enlisted in the Marine Corps. Norton started boxing while he was in the Marines, compiling an amateur record of 24-2 and winning the All-Marine Heavyweight Championship three times.
He turned pro in 1967 and won 16 straight bouts before being knocked out by Jose Luis Garcia. Soon afterward, he read Napoleon Hill’s motivational book “Think and Grow Rich.”
“I must have read that book 100 times while in training, and I became a stronger person for it,” BoxRec.com quoted him as saying. He said that he believed in the book’s philosophy that a person could do the unexpected if he put his mind to it.
“So I train for my fights mentally as well as physically,” he said. “One thing I do is only watch films of the fights in which I’ve done well or in which my opponent has done poorly.”
Norton fought the undefeated George Foreman for the W.B.C. and W.B.A. heavyweight championships in 1974 and was knocked out in the second round. He stopped Jerry Quarry in five rounds in 1975 to regain the N.A.B.F. crown. In his next fight, Norton avenged his 1970 loss to Garcia with a fifth-round knockout.
After having retired for a time, Norton returned in 1980 and defeated the previously unbeaten Tex Cobb on a decision. The next year, Gerry Cooney, ranked No. 1 by the W.B.A. and the W.B.C., knocked Norton out in the first round in what became his final fight. Norton won 42 fights (33 by knockout), lost seven times and fought one draw.
Norton who was nicknamed “The Black Hercules“, acted in many movies, most notably the 1975 Hollywood film “Mandingo,” in which he played the slave Mede, who is trained to fight by his owner.
The character of Appollo Creed in “Rocky” was originally going to be played by Norton, but when he back out of the role, Carl Weathers took the job.
Norton was involved in a bad car accident in 1986. He recovered, and three years later he was inducted to the World Boxing Hall of Fame.
Reflecting the strong athletic pedigree, one of Norton’s sons, Ken Jr., played in the National Football League for the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.
Tributes are quickly pouring in for Norton, who was once given the title of the “Father of the Year” by the Los Angeles Times in 1977. “My heart has been heavy since hearing the news earlier today,” boxer Larry Holmes wrote on Twitter. “He was a good man.
Former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson said he met Norton when Tyson was still an amateur boxer. “Today a great man passed away,” Tyson wrote on Twitter. “A legend in the boxing world and a good man. “Ken Norton was always nice to me even when I was just an amateur fighter. He always treated me like I was somebody. Remarkable man. Condolences to Ken Norton’s family on this very sad day.”