The bell at ringside tolls for Ken Norton
He came out the Marine Corps where he learned to box and settled in San Diego, Calif. It was here that Ken Norton started his boxing career, eventually becoming the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
During the 1970s, the halcyon days of Heavyweight fisticuffs, Ken was there with the best. In fact, in front of his hometown crowd at the San Diego Sports Arena, he beat Muhammad Ali in a non-title fight in 1973.
I was there at ringside and after Ali’s loss. While talking with Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee and his cornerman, my pal Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, I was told Kenny had broken Ali’s jaw in the 2nd round and Ali on sheer perseverance (guts) finished out the fight.
His jaw was swollen to the size of an egg. That day, Ferdie and I put ice on Ali’s face while waiting for the EMTs to take him to the hospital. That’s how strong Kenny was and how powerful was his punch.
Kenny may have had, at the time, maybe at anytime, the most perfect physique. Because of his physical attractiveness, he was chosen to star in two big screen movies about slavery in the south, “Mandango” and “Drum." Here, the directors and producers capitalized on his Adonis-like build. The late great actor James Mason starred in both films. It never happened, but he was a contender to play Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies.
Throughout his boxing career, Ken never got the appreciation he deserved. In his three fights with Ali, who was called by many “The Greatest, " he gave Ali more than he could really handle.
They fought three times. The first fight in San Diego where he broke Ali’s jaw that was his only win, but a close fight nevertheless. They fought two more times, once at the Forum in California in 1973 and later at Madison Square Garden in 1976. The latter two were close disputed decisions.
Many at ringside felt that Kenny had won. I was there and I was one of them. Remember, this was when Ali was in his prime.
Ken Norton was easy to like and just as easy to work with. Many of you may remember the sports trivia game show "Pro-Fan" that the late Lloyd Thaxton and I created in 1977. It pitted a team of an athlete and a civilian against another team of the same makeup. The civilian had to answer questions and then, if correct, the athlete had to perform a game skill, but not in his own discipline.
Ken appeared on our show twice. Show #2 got us our only Emmy nomination.
His boxing career, unfortunately, ended abruptly in 1986 when he crashed his car and suffered severe injuries that would never let him fight again. More importantly, he was lucky to be alive.
From there his health went downhill. He suffered numerous strokes. So, this week this great, but comparatively unsung, ring warrior and gentle soul passed away. All we can hope is that he is at last at peace and his travails are over.
The bell tolls 10!