Norton was an outstanding athlete at Jacksonville High School. He was a member of the state championship football team and was selected to the all-state team on defense as a senior in 1960. His track coach entered him in eight events, and Norton placed first in seven of them. As a result, the “Ken Norton Rule,” which limits participation of an athlete to a maximum of four track and field events, was instituted in Illinois high school sports. After graduating from high school, Norton went to Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) on a football scholarship and studied elementary education.
Norton started boxing when he was in the United States Marine Corps from 1963 to 1967, compiling a 24–2 record en route to three All-Marine Heavyweight titles. In time, Ken became the best boxer to ever fight for the Marines, and was awarded the North Carolina AAU Golden Gloves, International AAU and Pan American titles. Following the National AAU finals in 1967, he turned professional. Norton built up a steady string of wins, some against journeyman fighters and others over fringe contenders like the giant Jack O’Halloran. He was learning and improving. But he suffered a surprise defeat, ironically just after The Ring magazine had profiled him as a prospect, at the hands of Venezuelan boxer Jose Luis Garcia in 1970. It was Garcia’s career peak.
Norton was given the motivational book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, which, as he states in his autobiography, Going the Distance, changed his life. Upon reading it, he went on a 14-fight winning streak, including a shocking victory over Muhammad Ali in 1973 to win the North American Boxing Federation heavyweight champion title. To quote Norton from his autobiography noted above, “These words (from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich) were the final inspiration in my victory over Ali: 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.”
An article which appeared in The Southeast Missourian[ discussed that Norton credited Napoleon Hill’s philosophy for his success. To quote from the article, “Norton says he’s a believer in Napoleon Hill’s philosophy, that a person can do anything he puts his mind to. ‘So I train for my fights,’ he says, ‘mentally as well as physically. One thing I do is only watch films of the fights in which I’ve done well or in which my opponent has done poorly.'” Ken Norton once said, “In boxing, and in all of life, nobody should ever stop learning!”
‘Name’ opponents were elusive in Norton’s early career. His first big break came with a clear win over respected contender Henry Clark. This helped get him his world recognition break when Ali agreed to a match. Joe Frazier, who’d sparred with Norton, presciently said of Ali, “He’ll have plenty of trouble!” Though both were top boxers in the mid 1970s, Norton and Frazier never fought each other, in part because they shared the same trainer, Eddie Futch.
On March 31, 1973, Muhammad Ali entered the ring at the San Diego Sports Arena wearing a robe given to him by Elvis Presley as a 5–1 favorite versus Ken Norton in a bout televised by ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Norton won a 12-round split decision over Ali in his adopted hometown of San Diego to win the NABF heavyweight title. In this bout, Norton broke Ali’s jaw (he maintains in round eleven, though Angelo Dundee said it was earlier), leading to only the second defeat for “The Greatest” in his career. (Ali’s only previous loss was to Joe Frazier, and Ali would later go on to defeat George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title in 1974.)
Almost six months later, at The Forum in Inglewood, California, on September 10, 1973, Ali avenged the Norton loss, but only just, when he got the return by a split decision. Norton weighed in at 205 lbs (5 pounds lighter than his first match with Ali) and boxing scribes discussed that his preparation was too intense and that perhaps he had overtrained. There were some furious exchanges in this hard-fought battle. From Ali’s point of view, a loss here would have seriously dented his claim of ever being “The Greatest.”
In 1974, Norton fought George Foreman for the World Heavyweight Championship but was stopped in two rounds at Poliedro of Caracas, Venezuela. After an even first round, Foreman staggered Norton with an uppercut a minute into round two, buckling him into the ropes. Norton did not hit the canvas, but continued on wobbly legs, clearly not having recovered, and shortly he went down a further two times in quick succession, with the referee intervening and stopping the fight. This fight would became known as the “Caracas Caper”. In 1975, Norton regained the NABF heavyweight title when he impressively defeated Jerry Quarry by TKO in the fifth round. Norton then avenged his above-mentioned 1970 loss to Jose Luis Garcia by decisively knocking out Garcia in round five.
On September 28, 1976, at Yankee Stadium in New York City, Norton would again fight Ali, who was now the world heavyweight champion since regaining the title with an eighth-round knockout of George Foreman in 1974. Many observers have felt this was the beginning of Ali’s decline as a boxer. It was a tough bruising battle for Ali. In one of the most disputed fights in history, the fight was even on the judges’ scorecards going into the final round, which Ali won on both the referee’s and judges’ scorecards to retain the world heavyweight championship. The judges scored the bout 8–7 for Ali, and the referee scored it 8–6 for Ali. At the end of the last round, the commentator announced he would be “very surprised” if Norton has not won the fight.
At the time of the third Ali-Norton bout, the last time a heavyweight champion had lost the title by decision was Max Baer to Jim Braddock 41 years earlier, and Ali-Norton III did not set a new marker. The January 1998 issue of Boxing Monthly listed Ali-Norton as the fifth most disputed title fight decision in boxing history. The unofficial UPI scorecard was 8–7 for Norton, and the unofficial AP scorecard was 9–6 for Ali. But Ali had received a pounding. His tactics were to try to push Norton back, but they had failed. He’d refused to ‘dance’ until the 11th when in sheer desperation, although the crowd massively roared its appreciation. Norton has said the third fight with Ali was the last boxing match for which he was fully motivated, owing to his disappointment at having lost a fight he believed he had clearly won.
1977 was a top year for Norton. He knocked out previously unbeaten top prospect Duane Bobick in one round, and after dispatching European title holder Lorenzo Zannon easily, he beat number two contender Jimmy Young (who himself had beaten George Foreman and Ron Lyle) in a 15-round split decision in a WBC big mandatory title-elimination fight, with the winner to face reigning WBC champion Ali, but Ali’s camp told Ring Magazine they did not want to fight Norton for a fourth time. Both boxers fought a smart fight; however, observers thought the decision controversial.
Plans, however, changed on February 15, 1978. On that night, in front of a nationwide television audience, Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks. The WBC then ordered a match between the new champion and its number one contender, but Spinks chose instead to give the fallen champion the first shot at taking his title rather than face the still dangerous Norton. The WBC responded on March 18, 1978, by retroactively giving title fight status to Norton’s victory over Young the year before and awarded Norton their championship, which split the heavyweight championship for the first time since Jimmy Ellis and Joe Frazier were both recognized as champions in the early 1970s.
In his first defense of the WBC title on June 9, 1978, Norton and new #1 contender Larry Holmes met in a classic fight. After 15 brutal rounds, Holmes was awarded the title via an extremely close split decision. The three judges’ cards were as follows: 143–142 for Holmes, 143–142 for Holmes, and 143–142 for Norton. The Associated Press scored it 143–142 for Norton. The March 2001 edition of The Ring magazine listed the final round of the Holmes-Norton bout as the 7th most exciting round in boxing history. As noted above, Holmes-Norton is ranked as the 10th greatest heavyweight fight of all time by Monte D. Cox, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO). Holmes went on to become the third-longest reigning world heavyweight champion in the history of boxing, behind Joe Louis and Wladimir Klitschko. Years later, Holmes wrote of his experience that this was his toughest match in over 70 contests.
During the height of his boxing career, Norton started to appear in feature films. After two uncredited appearances in the early 1970s, he played the title characters in the 1975 film Mandingo and the 1976 film Drum. Norton played characters in nine motion pictures, and also appeared as himself in a number of documentaries and television films.
Norton additionally worked as a television and radio sports commentator and appeared in popular TV series, such as jailbird “Jackhammer” Jackson in “Pros and Cons”, an early first-season episode of The A-Team (filmed 1982, broadcast 1983), and as boxer Bo Keeler in the fourth season Knight Rider episode “Redemption of a Champion” (1986). Norton also appeared on the Superstars sports competition on ABC TV (1976) and was a member of the Sports Illustrated Speakers Bureau. The character of “Apollo Creed” in Rocky was initially going to be played by Norton. However, when he pulled out, Carl Weathers was selected.
Norton continued making TV, radio and public speaking appearances until suffering injuries in a near-fatal car accident in 1986. It left him with slow and slurred speech. He appeared along with Ali, Foreman, Frazier and Holmes in a video, Champions Forever, discussing their best times, and in 2000 he published his autobiography, Going the Distance. Norton died at a care facility in Las Vegas, Nevada on September 18, 2013. He was 70 years old and had suffered a series of strokes in later life. Across the boxing world tributes were paid, with George Foreman calling him “the fairest of them all” and Larry Holmes saying that he “will be incredibly missed in the boxing world and by many”.
- August, 09, 1943
- Jacksonville, Illinois
- September, 18, 2013
- Henderson, Nevada
Cause of Death
- Jacksonville East Cemetery
- Jacksonville, Illinois