Ken Norton

People will feel how they feel about boxing. It is the essence of violence. It is, and will always be, corrupt. It offers false hope to many and has been a playground for gangsters.

But every now and again, if you can stand to look, boxing can bring out something deep in the human spirit.

Below is the 15th round of Larry Holmes-Ken Norton. It is one of the greatest rounds in the long and tattered history of professional boxing. The 15th round came at the end of a ferocious and close fight that Norton would finally lose in a split decision. I thought he won it when I watched it. But I was only 11.

It was Norton’s fate to linger just beneath the great fighters of his day. He broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw once but lost two other close decisions to The Greatest. He never fought Joe Frazier but sparred with him and Frazier said he was hell to fight. Norton was clubbed into submission by an ascendant George Foreman — Norton’s attacking style was grist for Foreman’s power. And this loss to Holmes more or less ended things for him, though like most other fighters he kept fighting until the sad and inevitable ending (Norton’s ending came at the hands of Gerry Cooney, who knocked him out in the first round. Norton was 38 and dead on his feet at the opening bell).

Norton’s style was simple and, I think, what drew me to him. He moved forward. That’s all. He was lighter than the other heavyweights, which made the style seem even more unreasonable. His idea of defense was turning his body just so in order to dampen the power of their punches — you often heard him called “awkward.” But awkward or not, he kept coming forward, offering himself up to be hit. I guess he figured that if you could hit him and he could hit you, he would win most of the time. In 50 professional fights, he was right 42 times.

And this final round against Holmes was the height of his unique blend of audacity and will and punching power. I remember watching this as an 11-year-old and wondering how in the world either man could stay up through all of this. I watch it now, 35 years later, and wonder the same thing. The last few seconds of the fight, Holmes just throws power shot after power shot, and Norton refused to fall.

When I heard that Ken Norton died on Wednesday, at the age of 70, I could not help but think of con-man Bill Mizner’s classic line (as retold by Red Smith) when he heard that the great fighter Stanley Ketchel had died. “Tell ‘em to start counting,” Mizner said. “And he’ll get up.”

11 Responses to Ken Norton

  1. B.E. Earl says:

    My second favorite fighter of that generation after Joe Frazier. So sad that both of them are gone now.

  2. Norton was the first important fighter Ali faced who was his match in size, and who also had power. Ernie Terrell was taller, but never could match Ali in any respect. Norton and Frazier also threw mostly hooks at Ali which allowed them to go behind Ali’s guard, a point Norton made while commenting in Thrilla in Manila, while George Foreman threw mostly straight punches at Ali.

    Norton could argue he won all 3 fights. I believe him.

  3. PEFACommish says:

    That is the closest thing I’ve ever watched to the fight scene out of Rocky.

  4. Wow — for violence, it’s as bad as football. . . .

  5. djangoz says:

    Watching this now after watching MMA for 15 years all I see is how enormous the boxing gloves are and how cruel it makes boxing because they receive hundreds and hundred of punches to the head in a fight instead of just being knocked out.

    • Rob Smith says:

      So you’re saying getting smashed in the head with a roundhouse kick or virtually bare knuckles is BETTER for you? Interesting theory.

    • It isn’t a theory. It’s the truth, borne out by studies; faster KOS and quicker ends of fights…aided in part by lighter gloves…leads to less punishment. Boxing gloves protect the hands encased inside them, not the heads they connect with. MMA gloves do virtually nothing for the hands but create less force.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I just think it’s interesting to use the word “cruel” to boxing and not to MMA. You say studies prove that getting your face kicked in by a roundhouse martial arts kick is less damaging overall than being hit with boxing gloves more often. A simple Google search indicates that this is a controversial opinion, not fact. Several studies indicate that both are very harmful to the health of the fighter & note that the suggestion that MMA is “safe” is ridiculous. But, either way, suggesting that MMA is not cruel because knockouts (concussions) happen quicker is, well, insane.

    • Tree Frog says:

      Sub-concussive blows add up, especially when delivered in large bunches over a short period of time.

      Yes, MMA has an onrushing CTE storm on its horizons, but it is demonstrably safer than boxing or American football.

      Concussions are not the sole cause of CTE or brain damage. There are many studies backing this and I’ve written articles on the topic for a major MMA site.

  6. Clevo says:

    Note: the ref is a young Mills Lane

  7. Ed McDonald says:

    I love boxing but refuse to watch it. It is fascinating to watch but the damage these guys take, I can’t watch it anymore.

    I work at the library in Charlotte, NC and I once helped a former journeyman fighter find an article about one of his fights. He was one of those guys others fighters boxed on their way up. He was obviously suffering the effects of his time as a boxer and it was sad to witness. His speech was slurred and his movements were slow. He reminded me of my dad during his recovery from a brain injury from a motorcycle accident.

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