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Boxing obit: Ken Norton, heavyweight who beat Muhammad Ali, dies at 70

Written By | Sep 18, 2013

SAN DIEGO, September 18, 2013 –  Former heavyweight champion Ken Norton, who beat Muhammad Ali and then lost a controversial decision to him in Yankee Stadium, died Wednesday at a veterans care facility in Las Vegas at age 70.

Norton had been in poor health for the last several years after suffering a series of strokes. These followed a near fatal auto accident in which Norton was badly injured. Against the odds he recovered but never regained his full physical mobility.

Ali’s former business manager Gene Kilroy said Mike Tyson, Earnie Shavers and Thomas Hearns visited Norton in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson.

“He’s been fighting the battle for two years,” said Kilroy. “I’m sure he’s in heaven now with all the great fighters. I’d like to hear that conversation.”

Larry Holmes, who beat Norton in a brawling 15-round split decision for the WBC heavyweight title in 1978, wrote on Twitter about his former foe, “My heart has been heavy since hearing the news earlier today. He was a good man.”

Norton was best known for his shocking split decision defeat of Muhammad Ali at the San Diego Sports Arena on March 31, 1973. Norton broke Ali’s jaw as shocked boxing fans watched Ali’s longtime nemesis Howard Cosell call the fight on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

In a rematch six months later, Ali was on the winning end of another split decision. Their third and final fight took place nearly three years later at Yankee Stadium on September 28, 1976. It was another narrow decision, which Ali won to retain his heavyweight title.

Norton finished with a record of 42-7-1 and 33 knockouts. After his retirement from the ring, he pursued an acting career. He appeared in several films that exploited Norton’s physical presence such as the 1975 slavery potboiler “Mandingo.” He also worked as a boxing commentator on television.

Norton began his boxing career in the United States Marine Corps, and began fighting professionally after leaving active duty in 1967. He lost only once in his early fights but had faced no notable opponents when he got the chance to fight Ali. Ali was looking for a tune-up fight as he worked on winning back the heavyweight title he had lost to Joe Frazier earlier in 1973.

Original poster advertising the first Ali vs. Norton fight in San Diego.

Original poster advertising the first Ali vs. Norton fight in San Diego.

The then 28-year-old Norton was given no chance of winning the fight with Ali, held at the San Diego Sports Arena on a Saturday afternoon to accommodate a broadcast on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” in Norton’s hometown – and mine as well.

San Diego was still just a small military town to most Americans. Having been snubbed just months before by Richard Nixon and the Republican Party, which moved its 1972 convention out of San Diego at the last minute, the fight was a chance to regain a little national visibility. It was a blockbuster civic event at the time and 12,000 fans packed the arena for the fight.

But as boxing observers often say, styles make fights. Norton used his imposing stature and pressuring tactics along with the same crossed arms defense favored by another San Diegan, Archie Moore, to come straight at Ali. When an opponent has nothing to lose, he is at his most dangerous. Supported by an enthusiastic crowd in his adopted hometown, it was the perfect formula for an upset.

Ali came into the ring wearing a robe given to him by Elvis Presley. The robe is on display at the San Diego Hall of Champions.

When Norton broke Ali’s jaw, it immediately put him into the top tier of fighters during an era of great heavyweights: Ali, Frazier, Foreman. It was heady company.

ABC announcer Howard Cosell had trash talked the unknown Norton, calling the fight a mismatch and a disgrace. During the post fight interview, Cosell apologized to Norton.

“Kenny, you made me look silly,” he said.

“That’s OK, Howard,” Norton replied. “You always look silly.”

Kilroy said after the fight Norton visited Ali at the hospital where he was getting his broken jaw wired. Ali, he said, told him he was a great fighter and he never wanted to fight him again.

Nevertheless, they would meet two more times, including the final fight at Yankee Stadium which on September 28 will be exactly 35 years ago. People who saw it still argue about who really won that fight.

Among those surviving Norton is his son, Ken  Jr., who played college football for UCLA and 13 seasons for the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. He now coaches for the Seattle Seahawks. During his playing days, when Ken Jr. scored a defensive touchdown, he would strike a boxing pose in the end zone in tribute to his dad.

On the 40th anniversary of the first Ali-Norton fight, Ken Norton Jr. recalled that his father forbid him from attending any of his fights. But he went back and watched them as an adult. He said he is always amazed by what he sees, especially the day his underdog, unknown Marine veteran dad took out the most famous boxer in the world.

“I don’t think there’s any question it was the biggest fight in his life,” Norton Jr. said. “It was a chance to make a mark, and all the training led up to that. He was supposed to be in that fight; he was supposed to break his jaw. It all happened the way it was supposed to go down.”

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She is also a serious boxing fan covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Ringside Seat in Communities Digital News. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego. Gayle can be reached via Google +

Please credit “Gayle Falkenthal for Communities Digital News when quoting from or linking to this story.  

Copyright © 2013 by Falcon Valley Group

Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award-winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.