While it may be going a bit far to classify Ken Norton as a “hard-luck fighter,” it’s difficult not to when one considers the twists and turns of his fateful career. Surely the term should not apply to a boxer whose record boasts a win over the great Muhammad Ali. And while it’s not luck of a good sort that sees you competing for the world title at the same time as both Ali and George Foreman, Norton was not the only big, talented heavyweight faced with that daunting prospect. He would lose to both all-time greats and years later he confessed that the judges’ verdict for Ali in their third battle in 1976 broke his heart and he was never the same ever after. But if that was so, he summoned up some vintage toughness and tenacity for his thrilling, fifteen round war with “The Easton Assassin,” Larry Holmes, though again, this historic battle, one of the all-time great big man donnybrooks, is also emblematic of Norton’s hard-luck status.
First let’s set the scene. After Ali lost to long-shot challenger Leon Spinks in 1978 in one of the sport’s biggest upsets, “The Greatest” demanded a rematch. The World Boxing Council objected, pointing to the fact their rules forbade immediate returns in such circumstances (a “rule” they disregarded when it suited them, ie. Leonard vs Duran II), and that Norton must receive the next title shot since he had defeated Jimmy Young in an “elimination” bout. And so, when the contracts for Ali-Spinks II were signed, the organization stripped Spinks of their shiny belt and passed it over to Norton. But such was the hardness of Norton’s luck that they then ordered their new titlist to immediately defend against Holmes, a boxer who in years to come would prove himself among the greatest heavyweights to ever lace up the gloves.
But at the time, few knew what to make of the 28-year-old challenger from Easton, Pennsylvania. No one questioned his talent, but some doubted his grit, in retrospect as big an irony as one could ever find in boxing considering the stern tests Larry faced in the years to come. Two things undermined Holmes’ reputation. One was his defeat in the 1972 Olympic Trials to Duane Bobick, for which he was unfairly branded “a quitter.” Second, his sparring work for Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers and Ali as, generally speaking, full-time sparring partners rarely distinguish themselves at the elite level. But just a few months previous Holmes had boxed brilliantly on national television, posting a twelve round shut-out over the dangerous Shavers. Thus, while the cynical doubted Holmes’ heart, all agreed he had earned his shot against Norton.
Held in Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas and broadcast on ABC, the inimitable Howard Cosell providing the blow-by-blow, Holmes vs Norton was in fact a showdown between the two best heavyweight boxers on the planet at the time, even if few realized it. Having lost to Spinks, “The Greatest” was clearly finished, while Foreman, Frazier and Jerry Quarry had all recently retired. Few took “Neon Leon” seriously, and both Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young had suffered losses to, variously, Ali, Foreman, Norton or Shavers. With wins over Young and Quarry, and his disputed loss to Ali still fresh in people’s minds, Norton deserved to be regarded as the world’s top heavyweight, while Holmes, with his impressive victory over Shavers, was right behind him. But while most at the time did not fully appreciate how exceptional this match-up was, when the riveting struggle finally ended, all who saw it knew they had witnessed one of the truly great battles in heavyweight history.
Part of what fueled the fight’s intensity was some genuine animosity between the combatants. Norton could be arrogant and this irritated Holmes. The two got into a shoving match at a pre-fight publicity event, with Larry taunting and Ken labelling his antagonist “a pinhead.” During the referee’s instructions at ring center, a seething Holmes attempted to intimidate with an angry glare, but an aloof Norton ignored him.
From the start Holmes set a brisk pace and after a skittish first round, which saw both men land hard shots, he settled into his rhythm, keeping Norton at the end of his potent left jab and following up with the straight right. Norton stalked, bobbing up and down as he shuffled forward, but he failed to effectively cut off the ring and was missing frequently. In the third he tried to establish his own jab but that only created more openings to exploit for the sharper challenger and in the fourth Holmes took advantage, scoring with a series of vicious combinations.
However, a minute into the fifth Norton connected with a powerful counter right, a harbinger of things to come. Holmes responded by ripping home his own hard right and, as the crowd came to its feet, the two big men commenced trading heavy shots in earnest before Larry got on his bicycle and out-maneuvered Norton for the remainder of the round. Five rounds in and the champion was well behind on points, but before the bell for the sixth he turned to his trainer and said, “Now it’s my turn.”
Norton began walking Larry down, applying intense pressure and throwing heavy left hooks as he did. Then, just when Holmes began to anticipate the hook, Norton changed it up and connected with two thudding overhand rights. Holmes boxed beautifully in the seventh, but near the end of the round the relentless Norton, who was palming many of Larry’s jabs with his right glove, caught “The Easton Assassin” with wicked shots from both hands and a series of thudding jabs. A hard right to the body had the challenger in full retreat at the bell.
Norton had seized the initiative. With Holmes visibly tiring, the champion took over in the eighth, out-jabbing the jabber and making him pay dearly every time he tried to take a respite from constantly circling the ring. Bleeding from a cut inside his mouth, Holmes seemed to fade as Norton pursued with fury and the challenger twice received warnings from the referee for holding. Near the end of the round a tiring Holmes went to the ropes where the fighters slugged it out, Norton landing solid overhand rights and left hooks to the body.
In the ninth and tenth the two big men rumbled on fairly even terms, though Norton connected with the heavier blows. And in the eleventh he battered Holmes, trapping his tired and bleeding challenger more than once to unload heavy artillery, hooks and crosses to both body and head. The twelfth saw Holmes again forced to battle toe-to-toe and it was the champion who got the better of it as the match had become a full-fledged brawl, a war of attrition. Both were tired, both hurting, and the scoring was virtually dead even as the courageous warriors faced the climactic three rounds.
Holmes needed to alter the course of the fight and in round thirteen he did just that. It required nothing novel tactically; the challenger (who, incredibly, was nursing a partially torn left bicep suffered six days prior) brought some snap back to the jab and the openings for the right followed. The momentum shifted as a slowing Norton now appeared vulnerable and Larry beat him to the punch repeatedly, staggering him with a right hand counter a minute into the round and then, for the first time, threatening to force a stoppage as he pounded Ken with a series of flush shots. The crowd roared as Holmes unloaded with both fists and at the bell Norton returned to his corner on unsteady legs.
Holmes now appeared in command and there could be little doubt he enjoyed a decided edge on the scorecards. But incredibly, the next round brought more drama and thrills for the capacity crowd and the millions watching on live television as Norton, constantly pursuing, regained the upper hand through sheer force of will. Near the end of the round he trapped his quarry in a neutral corner and teed off, landing one big shot after another.
The stage was set for a monumental finish. While a case could be made for a slight points edge for the challenger, it was also clear the contest was razor close and the final three minutes could decide matters one way or the other. Both warriors knew it and both summoned up every last vestige of energy to try and take it. The fifteenth round of this great heavyweight war will forever be remembered as one of the most exhilarating finales in boxing history.
Norton struck first, landing the right and backing Holmes up, the seemingly spent challenger unable to do anything else but reluctantly slug it out. Face-to-face and toe-to-toe the warriors stood, taking turns getting home thudding blows as the crowd went berserk. Norton appeared to have an edge as he sent Larry’s mouthpiece flying out of the ring, but then, with thirty seconds left, Holmes, demonstrating the kind of heart some thought he didn’t have, summoned up the energy for a final charge and abruptly took over, staggering Norton with the right cross and then sending him reeling with a huge uppercut. But Norton never stopped firing back and the final bell found both brave warriors still throwing and catching heavy shots.
The judges’ scores were, as they had to be, extremely close, each separating the fighters by a single point, and while one tabbed Norton the winner, the other two went the challenger’s way. Larry Holmes, in a grueling, punishing war which, decades later, he would unhesitatingly deem the toughest of his career, had won the WBC world title in one of the most thrilling and hard-fought heavyweight clashes in the entire history of pugilism. And once again, Ken Norton, after a truly gallant performance, found himself on the losing end of an extremely close decision. But that by itself doesn’t make him a hard-luck heavyweight. What does is the fact that Norton, surely one of the best of his time, possesses the peculiar distinction of being the only heavyweight world champion in boxing history to have never actually won a championship fight. — Michael Carbert