For some reason I always adored Kenny Norton.
It started as a kid, living in Packanack Lake, Wayne, NJ. I got into boxing after seeing Rocky.
Ken Norton was one of my first favorites. I liked his name and how muscular he looked in the boxing magazine photos. The first time I remember seeing him box on TV was against Jimmy Young in the WBC Eliminator.
Leon Spinks later refused to defend against Norton, opting instead to give Muhammad Ali a rematch, so via the fifteen round points win over Young, Norton eventually became WBC Heavyweight champion by default. Some people felt this was a cheap way to win the world title but I think Norton would have whupped Spinks anyway.
Another reason I liked Norton was how he gave Ali such troubles. I didn't see any of these fights, except for the highlights they showed when Norton fought on network TV. I figured Norton must have been a great fighter to give The Greatest such problems.
He certainly was a great fighter and he sure looked like one with that muscular, chiseled frame and he also had a good, likeable personality through the TV. Modest, soft spoken and honest.
I remember Howard Cosell said Norton was in tears after they robbed him of the decision against Ali at Yankee Stadium, the third and final time they fought.
There was something touching about that. Such a great, tough fighter, giving it his all, every ounce of his being and being robbed of the win by the judges. For Norton to cry about it showed he truly, surely believed he really did beat Ali that night. I have never seen a pro fighter cry in the ring after a fight, though I have heard stories of other greats crying behind the scenes, Andrew Golota and Pernell Whitaker, to name a couple.
For all these reasons, Kenny Norton became my man. I even named our kitten for him. We moved to a new house and there was a drain pipe under the driveway, that's where I found the black and white kitty with the pink nose one afternoon. So without any argument from my brother we named the cat Norton, for the boxer Kenny Norton and also a little bit for the TV character Ed Norton from the Honeymooners who worked in the sewar pipes under New York City. But primarily for Ken Norton.
I watched every Ken Norton fight that came on network TV. The second fight I saw was when he lost the title to Larry Holmes in the summer of '78. It was a great fight but Holmes won it. I never did understand why there was not a rematch for such a great fight. I still remember seeing Chevy Chase and Sylvester Stallone at ringside front row and were jumping like two lunatic kids during the thrilling fiftheenth round.
Norton's next fight was on TV too, against Earnie Shavers. That was a painful loss to watch, though I liked Shavers too. Ken lost in the first round. I think it was on ABC too. Later in '79 Norton was back on against Scott Ledoux. I remember seeing that one from Wildwood, NJ where we were on vacation in August. Norton could only get a draw vs. Ledoux. This fight was on CBS Channel 2 if my memory is correct.
Ever since losing to Holmes, Norton was never the same guy. It was as if he used his last surge of greatness in the last round against Holmes. That's what happens to great fighters after so many tough, hard battles. And the Holmes fight was brutal.
For some reason I didn't see the Norton Tx Cobb fight, maybe it wasn't on TV.
Then the last fight for Norton was against Gerry Cooney. For some reason I just didn't warm to Cooney and to see what he did to Ken Norton that night in the first round was horrifying. Thank God he recovered from those free left hooks Cooney kept on hitting him with. I always disliked Cooney for repeatedly hitting Norton like that, he didn't have to do that. Tony Perez, the referee, should have gotten in there quicker.
Later on Ken Norton worked as an NBC TV commentator with Marv Albert and he was in a movie called Mandingo, I think.
In my career in journalism over almost twenty years, I have been fortunate to have met just about everyone in boxing, from Ali to Khaosai Galaxy but I'm sad to say I never got the chance to meet or do a Biofile with Kenny Norton. Somehow he slipped through the cracks.
RIP Kenny Norton. You beat Ali twice. You were The Greatest too.