While it might be going a bit far to classify Ken Norton as a “hard-luck fighter,” it’s difficult not to see him as such when one considers all 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 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, 15 round war with “The Easton Assassin,” Larry Holmes, though again, this match too is emblematic of Norton’s hard-luck.
After Ali lost to unlikely heavyweight champion 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 a WBC “elimination” bout. Thus, when the contracts for Ali-Spinks II were signed, the organization promptly stripped Spinks of their belt and awarded it to Norton. But such was the hardness of Norton’s luck that they then ordered their new champion to immediately defend his new title against Holmes, a boxer who in the years to come would prove himself among the greatest heavyweights to ever lace up the gloves.
But at the time, no one was quite sure what to make of the 28-year-old challenger from Easton, Pennsylvania. Few disputed his talent but many questioned his heart and grit, in retrospect as big an irony as one might find in boxing considering the tests Larry would face in the years to come. Two things undermined Holmes’ reputation. One was his defeat in the 1972 Olympic Trials against Duane Bobick, for which he was unfairly branded a quitter. Second was his status as a long-time sparring partner for Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers and Ali as, generally speaking, full-time sparring partners rarely go on to distinguish themselves at the elite level. But Holmes had boxed brilliantly on national television in March, posting a 12 round shut-out over Shavers, boxing’s most dangerous puncher. Thus, while some doubted Holmes’ heart, the fact was 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, even if few at the time 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 great battles in heavyweight history.
Part of what fueled the fight’s intensity was the mutual dislike between the two combatants. Norton could be arrogant and this bothered Holmes. The two got into a shoving match at a pre-fight publicity event, with Holmes taunting Norton and the champion calling Larry “a pinhead.” During the referee’s instructions at ring centre, a seething Holmes attempted to intimidate with an angry glare, but an aloof Norton ignored him.
A keyed-up 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 pursued, 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 left openings for the sharper challenger to exploit and in the fourth Holmes took advantage, scoring with a series of vicious combinations.
But 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 traded heavy shots toe-to-toe before Larry got on his bicycle and outboxed 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.”
Applying intense pressure, Norton started walking Larry down, 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 now 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 appeared to weaken as Norton pursued with fury and the challenger twice received warnings from the referee for holding. By the end of the stanza Holmes had no choice but to go 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 on the ropes more than once to unload his heavy artillery, hooks and crosses to 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 brawl. Both men were tired, both suffering from the punishment, and the scoring was virtually dead even as the two courageous warriors faced the climactic three rounds.
Holmes desperately needed to alter the course of the fight and in the thirteenth round he did just that. It required nothing novel tactically; the challenger (who, incredibly, was nursing a partially torn left bicep suffered just six days prior) simply brought some snap back to his withering left jab and the openings presented themselves for the right hand. Once again the momentum shifted as a tiring, plodding Norton now appeared vulnerable and Larry beat him to the punch again and again, staggering him with a right hand counter a minute into the round and then, for the first time in the match, threatening to end it as he pounded Norton with a series of flush shots. The crowd, on its feet, roared as Holmes battered a hurt Norton and at the bell the champion returned to his corner on unsteady legs.
The challenger now appeared in command and there could be little doubt Holmes enjoyed a decided edge on the scorecards. But incredibly, the next round brought more thrills to the capacity crowd and the millions watching on 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 punch after another.
The stage was set now for a monumental finish. While a case could be made for a slight points edge for the challenger, it was also clear that the contest was razor close and the last 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 final round of this great heavyweight war will be forever remembered as one of the most exhilarating finales in boxing history.
Norton struck first, landing the right and backing Holmes up. Exhausted, the challenger had no choice but to hold his ground and slug it out. The two heavyweights stood face-to-face and took turns getting home thudding shots as the crowd stood and roared. Norton had the edge in power as he knocked out Larry’s mouthpiece, but then, with thirty seconds left to go, Holmes, demonstrating incredible spirit and heart, suddenly took over, staggering Norton with the right cross and then sending him reeling with a huge uppercut. Still, Norton never stopped firing back and the final bell found the gallant warriors throwing and landing wild punches.
The judges’ scores were, as they had to be, extremely close, separated by a single point, and while one tabbed Norton the winner, the other two went the challenger’s way. Larry Holmes, in what, decades later, he would unhesitatingly deem the toughest match of his entire career, had won the WBC world title in one of the most thrilling heavyweight battles 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