The 1970's can be remembered for many things, among them, the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, my own emotionally desolate childhood, polyester leisure suits, and the best, most significant heavyweight boxing in the history of the sport. This was an era when a heavyweight title fight was more than just a "mainstream" sporting event, it was a cultural happening infused with political overtones.
This was the age of the black athlete triumphant, and black boxers, above even black athletes in major American team sports, were icons of a revolution that many really believed would usher in a radically new and just order. Of course, the principal figure in all this was the great Muhammad Ali.
Ali was a true superstar, graced by God with immense physical talent and unique charisma, for whom the term "transcends sports" was invented. Muhammad Ali, for all his political notoriety and athletic skill, wouldn't have become "The Greatest" however, without being tested by the incredible ensemble cast of heavyweight greats and near greats that populated the boxing landscape of those years. In his greatest triumphs, Ali established dominance over all-time legends Joe Frazier and George Foreman in epic showdown battles before the eyes of the world in the searing heat of exotic tropical locations.
After so many years, some may forget that there was one man Ali fought during this era that would not be dominated. This man did not have an Olympic pedigree like Ali, Frazier, or Foreman. His amateur experience consisted of a handful of fights while serving in the Marine Corps. Ken Norton, the man who held a victory over the greatest heavyweight champion in history, and battled him on even terms on two other occasions began boxing at the hopelessly late age of 20.
Lacking the kind of refined skill set that only an early start in the Sweet Science can imbue, Norton relied on two assets he had in abundance: mind and body. He made his life's philosophy the concept that what the former could conceive, the latter could achieve. He was a thoughtful man who understood that by starting so late in life, he could never develop the classic boxing technique of most great champions, so he used his intelligence and creativity (and the guidance of HOF trainer Eddie Futch) to cobble together a unique, awkward style that violated basic boxing fundamentals, but somehow harnessed the potential of his pure athleticism. Ken Norton may have been the only fighter who could have fought like Ken Norton and had success.
There is a case to be made that Norton was the greatest natural athlete to ever become a championship caliber boxer. While in high school in Jacksonville, Il, he once won five events and placed second in three in a single track meet! This amazing feat prompted the Illinois High School Athletics Association to limit the number of events a single competitor could enter in one meet. To my knowledge, this limit is still referred to as the Norton rule.
His talent on the football field won him a scholarship at Truman State University in Missouri, but his career there was hampered by injury. He then decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps where he thrived on the highly disciplined lifestyle and returned to football only to find himself shut out of playing time by commissioned officers for whom football glory translated to promotion recommendations.
When he first turned to boxing, Norton won fights through raw strength and determination. His will and athletic adaptability enabled him to win a number of amateur titles in a relatively brief career. Turning pro in California after his Marine Corps stint was up, he continued to learn on the job, knocking over a string of low level opponents while raising two sons as a single parent. After suffering his first pro loss, he redoubled his efforts at cultivating his talent. He augmented the can-do attitude he learned in the Marines with the mind over matter philosophy of Napoleon Hill's self help classic "Think and Grow Rich." He continued to hone his awkwardly effective fighting style and pile up wins against increasingly tough competition until he landed the fight every heavyweight at once dreamed of and dreaded. On March 31, 1973 he entered the ring a 5-1 underdog against Muhammad Ali. Against the odds and defying all boxing wisdom, Ken Norton outfought Muhammad Ali over 12 rounds, breaking his jaw along the way. As his inspiration, he cited these words from Hill:
"Life's battles don't always go to the stronger or faster man, but sooner or later the man who wins, is the man who thinks he can."
Ken Norton, rest in peace.