Friday, September 20, 2013

Ken Norton: The Often-Forgotten 'Giant'

Ken Norton, who died Wednesday at the age of 70, was good enough to win the heavyweight championship in the conventional way.

Instead he was awarded the title when the champion, Leon Spinks, refused to fight Norton, the top contender, in his first title defense as mandated by the World Boxing Council after he beat Muhammad Ali in February 1978. Spinks was stripped of the WBC title, and Norton was given the title retroactively — on the basis of a fight he won the previous year.

I'm sure Norton would have preferred to win the title the old–fashioned way — in the ring. He came so close at times. It makes you wonder, doesn't it? Ali, Norton's most noteworthy contemporary, did it three times.

Norton fought Ali three times and won the first one — when Ali was in his prime. The only other fighter to do that was Joe Frazier.

Like Frazier, Norton lost his next two bouts with Ali, but Ali's victories against each fighter were different. In each succeeding fight with Frazier, Ali seemed to get better but Frazier did not. Norton — competing "in what can now be viewed as a golden era of heavyweights," writes The Telegraph — maintained his level of excellence.

Norton came into his third fight with Ali supremely confident, and he was confident he had outfought Ali when the final bell rang. There were even those who thought Norton won that final bout with Ali. A victory would have given Norton the title, but he came up short, just as he did against George Foreman.

As I say, he eventually won the title, anyway — but not in the ring. I guess, for some fight fans, that diminishes the accomplishment, even though the WBC insisted it was based on a real victory in the ring. It just wasn't recognized at the time as a title fight.

Perhaps that is, to a degree, why the only Ken Norton who is recognized by many modern–day sports fans is Norton's son and namesake.

There was an embarrassment of riches in the heavyweight division in those days.

Or, as Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports writes, that was when boxing was "the most amazing sport around."

I read Doyel's piece on Norton a couple of times, and, both times, I found myself nodding in agreement when I read this: "[O]nce upon a time boxing was full of true sporting giants," one of whom was Norton.

It must have been hard to stand out among all those other giants.

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