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Seven and a half years ago the very personable and popular Ken Norton was enshrined in Boxing’s Hall of Fame. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. I met Ken a couple of years ago in Canastota. His rapport with the fans and his willingness to mingle and sign autographs endeared him to the crowd. Being an ambassador for boxing is one thing and being a Hall of Fame caliber boxer is another. After watching Jimmy Bivins wait for years to be rightfully inducted it made me wonder what the qualifications really are. Does Ken really deserve to be enshrined? Let’s examine his career.
Ken began his career in a promising fashion reeling off an unbeaten streak against mediocre opposition. He was beginning to gain recognition as a top prospect until the roof caved in. A wiry Venezuelan named Jose Luis Garcia bombed Ken out and forced Norton to start all over. It took some time but Ken finally re-established himself with tough victories over men like Jack O’Halloran and Henry Clark. Norton was ranked but no one gave him a chance when he met ex-champion Muhammad Ali in March of 1973. In a fight that will forever be remembered as “The Jaw Breaker”, Norton walked off with the upset decision and Ali left to have his jaw wired. Their September 1973 rematch saw a better-conditioned Ali win a very close verdict.
In splitting two bouts with Ali. Ken got his first shot at the world crown against George Foreman. Foreman had destroyed Ken’s friend Joe Frazier in two rounds to capture the title. George duplicated the feat halting Kenny in round two of a mismatch. Again Norton would rebuild his career and after Ali stripped Foreman of his cloak of invincibility in Zaire, Ken became the logical contender. They met in their rubber match for Ali’s title in September of 1976 at Yankee Stadium. Ali retained his title with an unpopular decision. Personally, I felt Kenny deserved the verdict.
When Norton destroyed previously unbeaten Duane Bobick in one round in 1977, he put himself in line for a fourth meeting with Ali. Then boxing politics intervened. Ali lost his title in a major upset to Leon Spinks. The W.B.C. ordered Spinks to defend his title against Norton. Instead Spinks opted for a more lucrative rematch with Ali. Norton then met clever Jimmy Young. The winner to be proclaimed “champion” by the W.B.C. Norton won a dull decision over Young and he was bestowed the W.B.C. crown. So never having won the title in the ring, Kenny lost it in his first defense to Larry Holmes in a terrific battle. Everyone was looking forward to a rematch but Kenny got himself knocked out in one round by Earnie Shavers.
Ken would again try to re-establish himself but his age had finally caught up to him. A life and death struggle to secure a draw with journeyman Scott LeDoux pretty much spelled the end. He did re-surface briefly to edge Tex Cobb, but that only led to disaster as a red hot Gerry Cooney put a final exclamation point on Ken’s career with a brutal one round knockout. Ken did beat some notables during his distinguished career. Contenders like Henry Clark, Jerry Quarry, Boone Kirkman, and Garcia in a rematch, Jimmy Young, Cobb, and Larry Middleton adorn his record.
In reality, Ken lived off his reputation earned in his trio of bouts with Ali. For some reason Ken always proved troublesome to Muhammad. Ken’s best bout may have been his losing venture against Holmes in an all time classic. Ken’s chin was suspect ever since the first Garcia bout. Anytime he faced a big, big puncher he was usually sent home early. Reference to his bouts with Foreman, Shavers, and Cooney. Quarry and Henry Clark were on the downside of their careers when Ken beat them. Kirkman was overrated. Young and Middleton were fast and smart but light hitters. Cobb was game and tough but slow. Kenny was well ahead of LeDoux before his legs gave out and Scott gamely battled back to almost halt Ken. Why did Ken never meet Ron Lyle?
Ken Norton was a very good heavyweight, make no mistake about it. He was not a GREAT heavyweight. Only the greats should be honored as a member of The International Boxing Hall of Fame.
By Jim Amato
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