Ali, Norton and golden age of heavyweights
They were young once, and perhaps it’s best to remember them
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
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
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
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
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.