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Ken Norton: Bedeviled Muhammad Ali, almost beat Larry Holmes, Mandingo in movies

Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali had fierce three fight rivalry, bouts in San Diego, Los Angeles, Yankee Stadium
Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali had fierce three fight rivalry, bouts in San Diego, Los Angeles, Yankee Stadium
AP Photo (1973)

 

Ken Norton, who died at age 70 in Arizona Wednesday, was mad as hell at me once and I never forgot it.

This was back sometime around 1978 I think, in Las Vegas when I was scribbling for The Las Vegas SUN.

The word "snarky" wasn't in existence then but I wrote something factual, factually but snarky, on the front page of the newspaper. I mentioned, with some sarcasm how the fighting ex-Marine, the man whose crossed arms style befuddled my idol Muhammad Ali through three fights, was the answer to a boxing trivia question.

"Name the only heavyweight champ never to win a title fight," I wrote.

Norton was the answer as he gained the WBC version title because Neon Leon Spinks chose a lucrative rematch with Ali over fighting for the green and gold belt. Norton won a somewhat controversial elimination bout against slick Jimmy Young but, in his first title try, he was nosed out by Larry Holmes (June 9, 1978, Caesars Palace) in a wickedly good, 15-round fight.

Norton's anger diminished over time but he always had me correctly pegged as "an Ali man." At a WBC meeting in Cancun about eight years or so ago, he chided me for always favoring Ali above all others.

"It's OK," Norton said graciously, "I know you went to elementary school with him."

I had to laugh because there were no white kids in Cassius Clay's segregated schools.

Some other things I remember about Ken Norton from Jacksonville, Illinois...

How he broke Ali's jaw in their first bout, the one held in Norton stronghold, San Diego...

How he relished being "Mandingo" in the movie roles...

How he had trouble with the big punchers, with George Foreman and Gerry Cooney...

How he was a ladies man who did not have to work at it...

How devoted he was to his esteemed trainer, Bill Slayton....

His close relationship with Smokin' Joe Frazier, the main reason they never fought each other...

How it was even up, seven rounds apiece, through 14 steamy rounds against Holmes. It took Larry's educated jab, pumping furiously despite a bad injury, to give the crown to "Big Jack."...

How rarely Norton spoke of his football days and how often he spoke abou his NFL star son, Ken Norton Jr., even when they were foolishly feuding...

How kind Norton was to sparmate (and later world champ) Mike "Hercules" Weaver. They both had awesome physiques and I don't think either pumped iron...

How, in one of my rare perfect prognostications in The New York Post, I tabbed Cooney for a KO 1 over Norton in Madison Square Garden. Fact was, Norton's legs were shot and his chin was always suspect...And how Norton's loyal publicist, Bobby Goodman, was hot over my pick against his guy and how we laughed about it over drinks afterwards...

I remember Ken Norton, very good if not great heavyweight and a great person once you got to know him...

One by one, first Frazier and now sidekick Norton, the supernovas in the heavyweight constellation are leaving us...

(mlcmarley@aol.com)