Ken Norton’s death Wednesday brought back a lot of memories. It’s too bad this generation can’t form any new ones.
That’s why you had to feel sad not only for Norton, but for today’s boxing fans. All 193 of them.
Norton came along at the right and wrong time: Right for fans, who had more great fighters than their eyes could follow; wrong for Norton, who would have ruled the heavyweight world if he’d come along today.
Actually, Norton probably would have been an NFL tight end or MMA god. I hate to turn this into another "Boxing is Dead" lament — but this news drove home just how far the sport has fallen.
Remember the ’70s? It was when men were men. Boxers fought regularly, Howard Cosell called the bouts and anyone with a black-and-white TV could watch. As we learned March 31, 1973, there was no telling what you might see.
“In my opinion the fighters of our era, in the ’70s, were the greatest group of fighters ever assembled,” Norton said earlier this year.
Calm down, ring fans born after 1980. I know there are still good boxers, and the sport is still popular in some places — like the Ukraine, where six out of 10 people can tell you which Klitschko is Vitali and which is Wladimir.
I also know the sport can still rake it in. Showtime sold more than 2 million pay-per-view passes to Saturday night’s Mayweather-Alvarez fight. But, what did fans get for their $75 high-def video ticket?
The most memorable thing about the fight was Justin Bieber escorting the champ to the ring. I would have gladly paid $150 to watch Bieber get in the ring against Alvarez. Now that would have been a memory. When was the last time boxing really gave you a night worthy of one?
Every boxing fan remembers where they were when Muhammad Ali first ran into one of Norton’s left hooks. It was on “Wide World of Sports” on a Saturday afternoon — and you didn’t need cable or pay-per-view to watch it. (Cable, what’s that?)
There was a rematch that September, and a third fight three years later. These days, Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao spend three years arguing over what color trunks they’d have to wear if they ever fight — which they won’t.
A few stars and promoters get rich while the sport grows increasingly destitute. Money was a consideration in 1973, but it was never the deal-breaking issue. Norton received $50,000, which was $42,000 more than he’d ever made in a single fight. Ali received $210,000.
To put these numbers in perspective: Mayweather made almost that much ($192,213) per second last Saturday night.
That figure makes it hard to blame boxing for putting every fight worth watching on pay-per-view.
Yet, decades of this business strategy have come with a cost for the sport. People can’t become fans of events they never see — nor can they aspire to become a participant of the sport themselves. If a young Ali or Norton flipped on the TV in the 1990s, they saw Michael Jordan and Barry Sanders.
They never were treated to an afternoon like we had 40 years ago.
Few people outside of San Diego had seen or heard of Norton. He looked like he’d just walked in from Muscle Beach — Six-foot-three and 210 pounds of iron. Cosell, wearing the famed yellow ABC Sports blazer, noted that Norton’s hypnotist got more pre-fight attention than Norton.
“He’s reduced him from being overconfident to merely confident,” Cosell said.
America giggled along. Then somewhere in the first couple of rounds, Norton rearranged Ali’s jaw. Nobody knew it at the time except Ali, who fought till the final bell. The decision still echoes.
“There it is!” Cosell yelled in the mob scene that was the ring. “There it is!”
He made his way over to Norton.
“Now what do you think?” the fighter asked.
“Well, I say I was dead wrong,” Cosell said. “And most of the country was dead wrong.”
“You’re always wrong,” Norton laughed.
Ali came over to congratulate Norton. That’s when we learned about the broken jaw.
“Muhammad Ali can’t talk,” Cosell said.
Whoever thought we’d see that day?
We sure wouldn’t see it now, even with pay-per-view. Cosell is dead, Ali can barely get around. Joe Frazier passed and now Norton is gone.
Thanks for the memories, Kenny — and thanks for never letting someone like Justin Bieber escort you to the ring.