Tribute: Norton, Champ Who Broke Ali's Jaw In Bruising Fight, Dies At 70

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[Tribute: Boxing Legend]

In the sweet science of boxing, no one had a better muscular body than Ken Howard Norton Sr., perhaps with the exception of  Roy Jones Jr., Evander Holyfield, Mike Weaver, and of course, Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

Norton’s body was so sculpted and chiseled that he was given the nickname the “Black Hercules.” As a teenager and young pugilist, I tried my best to look like Ken Norton physically. Legend has it that Norton’s body was so cut and lean that even the Greek statues marveled at him.

Unlike many pugilists, Norton attended college on a football scholarship at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) and majored in elementary education at a time when very few Black males considered the career path of being an elementary school teacher.  In spite of that fact, by 1963, Norton enlisted in the Untied States Marine Corps where he learned boxing.  Four years later, Norton became a professional prizefighter.

Norton entered boxing at a time when the sweet science was at its peak and the competition in the heavyweight division was fierce. As an ex-Marine, Norton ducked no one and battled against the best, such as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Jimmy Young. 

Norton never fought “Smokin” Joe Frazier, but they sparred frequently. Perhaps, it was their sparring sessions that made both fighters determined never to compete in a professional bout with each other. Another factor could have been that both fighters were trained by the legendary Eddie Futch.

Trained by Eddie Futch, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, and Trevor Berbick were four heavyweights out of five who defeated Muhammad Ali. With Futch as his trainer and “Smokin” Joe as his sparring partner, Norton knew how to outbox Ali. Actually, it was after his first fight with the self-proclaimed “Greatest,” that Norton was given a second nickname, that of the “Jaw Breaker.”

On March 31, 1973, Norton broke Ali’s jaw in his surprising 12-round win. He became the second man to defeat Ali – “Smokin” Joe being the first to do so in 1971 at Madison Square Garden in what was dubbed the “Fight of the Century.” 

However, Norton and Ali would meet again twice with the last fight taking place in Yankee Stadium on September 28, 1976.  The rematches were extremely close and well fought by both fighters, but Ali won both. For Norton and many boxing pundits --and even perhaps privately to Muhammad Ali-- the trilogy belonged to Norton.

In an elimination bout win over Jimmy Young in 1977, Norton was awarded the WBC title as Leon Spinks avoided a required title defense match with the number one contender, Ken Norton. On September 6, 1978 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, in his first title defense as the WBC heavyweight champion, Norton suffered a close defeat at the hands of Larry Holmes in a 1 point spilt decision. Many boxing observers listed Norton’s fight with Holmes as among the top 10 greatest heavyweight fights of all time.

Born on August 9, 1943, in Jacksonville, Illinois, Ken Howard Norton Sr., who is ranked among the top 25 greatest heavyweights of all time by Ring Magazine, became the only heavyweight champ never to win the title in the ring.  In 1977, he was named "Fighter of the Year" by the Boxing Writers Association of America. By 1981, Norton announced his retirement soon after boxing fans worldwide stood aghast in Madison Square Garden on May 11 as Gerry Cooney pounded Ken Norton relentlessly and mercilessly within the first 54 seconds of the first round.

After his retirement from prizefighting, Ken Norton was inducted to the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1989; International Boxing Hall of Fame by 1992;  United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in 2004; and by 2008, the World Boxing Council Hall of Fame.  However, for Ken Norton, the most prestigious award bestowed to him twice was “Father of the Year” in 1977.

With a record of 42 wins, 7 losses, and 1 draw with 33 knockouts, Ken Howard Norton Sr., died from his long battle against various health ailments on Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at the age of 70.

In the past, Norton suffered several strokes, prostate cancer, a heart attack, congestive heart failure, quadruple bypass surgery, and a severe brain injury from a deadly car accident.

For his valor, tact, integrity, toughness, spirit, and battles inside and outside the ring, Ken Norton was given a third nickname, the “Fighting Marine.”

This champion will be truly missed.


Professor Patrick Delices is a political analyst/commentator for the Black Star News and the author of “The Digital Economy,” Journal of International Affairs. For nearly a decade, Prof. Delices has taught Africana Studies at Hunter College. He also served as a research fellow for the late Pulitzer Prize recipient, Dr. Manning Marable at Columbia University. 

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