When he climbed into the ring at San Diego Sports Arena to fight Muhammad Ali on the afternoon of March 31, 1973, Ken Norton was a 29-year-old, seventh-year pro ranked sixth in the world among heavyweights. Ali was, well, Ali. After losing to Joe Frazier in 1971, Ali had blithely dubbed himself the People's Champion and embarked on a barnstorming tour, fighting everywhere from Houston to Tokyo to Dublin and beating a parade of contenders that included Jimmy Ellis, George Chuvalo, Jerry Quarry and Bob Foster. The match with Norton, whose 29--1 record featured few notable victories and a KO loss three years earlier to the forgettable José Luis Garcia, was expected to be another easy victory for the Greatest.
Instead, bringing all the fans watching the bout on Wide World of Sports off their couches, Norton broke Ali's jaw and hammered out a 12-round split decision win. "There it is," shouted Howard Cosell when the verdict was announced, "one of the greatest upsets in boxing history!"
It was hyperbole, of course. If there were a Mount Rushmore of heavyweights during the 1970s—the decade so often referred to as the sport's Golden Era—it would have the likenesses of Ali, Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes. But Norton, who died last week at 70 after a series of strokes over the last several years, stood on a peak barely below those four alltime greats.
At 6'3" and around 210 pounds at his best, with a magnificently chiseled physique that would help land him roles in the films Mandingo and Drum—"Believe me," says Foreman with a rueful chuckle, "when Ken Norton came around, you did not want your girlfriend there!"—Norton was a powerful and rugged ring presence. A three-sport star at Jacksonville (Ind.) High who'd gone to Northeast Missouri State (now Truman State) on a football scholarship, he took up boxing in the Marine Corps. His awkward style, featuring a cross-armed defense and an upward left jab, gave other fighters fits. His career included KOs of Quarry and Duane Bobick, and though he was blown out in two rounds by Foreman in a title bid in 1974, Norton earned the WBC championship three years later after beating Jimmy Young. He would lose the belt to Holmes in '78 in a 15-round war that is still considered one of the greatest heavyweight title fights. "I figured if he hit me two times and I hit him four, I'm winning," says Holmes, recalling the epic final round.
It was against Ali, though, that Norton rose to his greatest heights. The two would fight twice more after San Diego, with Ali narrowly winning both, including a 15-round unanimous decision in 1976 that was booed by the crowd at Yankee Stadium.
Norton's later years were clouded by sadness, as a near-fatal car wreck in 1986 kept him confined to a wheelchair for several years, and he endured a long estrangement from his son Ken Jr., the 13-year NFL linebacker who's now an assistant coach with the Seahawks. But through it all, he remained close to the fight game and to his fellow members of a very exclusive heavyweight fraternity.
"I'd see him at an event," says Holmes, "and he'd call me over close and say, 'You know, I beat your ass.' And then he'd laugh."
"He was the nicest of the whole bunch of us," says Foreman. "Ken Norton was the fairest of them all—on the outside and on the inside."
Norton's win over Ali—in which he broke the Greatest's jaw—was hailed as an upset, but it shouldn't have been.
NEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED