Ali, Norton and golden age of heavyweights

They were young once, and perhaps it’s best to remember them

that way.

Magnificent men on stages equally as magnificent, they were part

of the golden age of heavyweight boxing. With Muhammad Ali as the

common thread, they fought in faraway places like Zaire and the

Philippines, in Yankee Stadium and in the parking lot of a faux

Roman palace on the Las Vegas Strip.

”On any given night all of us could beat the other,” George

Foreman said. ”I had Ken Norton’s number and Joe Frazier’s number.

Ali had my number, and Norton had Ali’s number. No one would give

up.”

For the better part of two decades, no one did. They fought each

other and, if that didn’t settle things, they fought each other

again. Ali in particular didn’t mind meeting a familiar foe, with

three fights each against Norton and Frazier.

For Norton, who died this week at the age of 70, fighting Ali

didn’t just put him in the upper echelon of heavyweights at a time

when heavyweights reigned supreme. It literally put food on his

table for his son, Ken Jr., who would go on to play in the NFL for

13 years and now coaches linebackers for the Seattle Seahawks.

The money was there because Ali made sure it was. He and Frazier

met in what was truly the Fight of the Century in 1971, both

getting $2.5 million purses that were unheard of at the time.

A few years later, Ali was heavyweight champion again, though

some thought his time had passed. He hadn’t looked that great

against Norton in their 1976 fight at Yankee Stadium, and now he

was going to defend his title against Alfredo Evangelista, a solid

if unspectacular contender most noted as being the best heavyweight

ever to emerge from Uruguay.

”Why do you keep fighting?” a radio man asked Ali before the

bout.

Ali looked at the man like he had just landed from outer space

before explaining why he was risking his heavyweight crown.

”You know what they’re paying me for one night – $2.75 million.

This is not Joe Frazier or Ken Norton or Jimmy Young,” he said.

”I’m getting $2.75 million for a tuneup, a warmup, against a

nobody.”

There had to be some nobodies, of course, because the

heavyweights who really mattered couldn’t keep fighting each other

all the time. Sometimes, though, it seemed like they did, even to

those actually doing the fighting.

”They kept coming, and kept coming, one after the other,”

Foreman said. ”You just couldn’t find an easy target.”

Norton was no easy target – far from it. The former Marine with

the sculpted body came out of nowhere to break Ali’s jaw and hand

him only his second defeat in 1973. The two would fight two more

times and Ali would win both, though Norton went to his grave

believing that he was robbed in their last fight in 1976 in Yankee

Stadium.

There was no such controversy two years earlier when Norton

challenged Foreman for the heavyweight title in, of all places,

Caracas, Venezuela. The fearsome Foreman, fighting one last fight

before he and Ali would meet in the ”Rumble in the Jungle” in

Zaire, knocked Norton down three times before the fight was

mercifully called to an end in the second round.

”A lot of people assumed he was afraid of me but he was never

afraid of me,” Foreman said. ”He got in the ring and took off his

robe and I looked over there and he looks like Hercules. That

wasn’t pretty at all.”

Norton is gone now, never really having recovered from blows

taken to the head and a car accident in the 1980s that nearly

killed him. So is Frazier, and other less notable alums of the

great heavyweight era like Young and Ron Lyle.

Getting hit in the head by a 200-pound (90-kilogram) man can

take a toll, though some weathered it better than others. I was

with Leon Spinks last year when he and his wife sat in a small room

at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, where he was

told his brain was shrinking because of the abuse it took in the

ring and out.

It was grand, though now it’s not so pretty. Ali himself is

nearly mute and a trembling figure these days in Arizona, ravaged

by the Parkinson’s Syndrome that did what no other opponent could

do – silence The Greatest.

”He’s living a more humble life now, but he’s doing good,”

said Ali’s former business manager, Gene Kilroy, who visited him

this year on Ali’s 71st birthday. ”But he’s not the Ali he used to

be when he would walk down the street and 5,000 people would follow

as he yelled `Who’s the greatest of all time?”’

Ali was, and of that there is little doubt. He captivated the

world with his mouth outside the ring, and thrilled them with his

work inside the ropes. Two wins each against Frazier and Norton and

mighty upsets of Foreman and Sonny Liston were more than a career

for any one man.

His supporting class was awfully good too – the last batch of

heavyweights to take up boxing before the lure of basketball and

American football took away so many good athletes from pursuing the

sport. Like Norton, they were champions too, even if Ali always

seemed to reign supreme.

They were all young once, and they were magnificent.

As another one passes, we’re all lucky to be able to remember

them that way.