Ken Norton Sr. wasn’t born in Southern California, but the former heavyweight boxing champion who gained fame by upsetting Muhammad Ali in 1973, fought 30 times in California and several of those was at the old Olympic Auditorium.
He was OUR champion, fought his battles in the ring like a raging bull, but lived his life like a graceful gentlemen outside of it.
When news spread that Norton had died in a hospital in Arizona last week on Sept. 18 as a result of congestive heart failure, I fondly thought about my brief interactions with him and how he should best be remembered. He was 70.
While the trilogy of heavyweight fights will be legendary, he will more than likely best be remembered as a wonderful father. He left us with his namesake Ken Norton Jr. who starred at UCLA and was a defensive coach at USC before joining Pete Carroll with the Seattle Seahawks as linebackers coach.
Norton Jr. was an All-American linebacker at UCLA in 1987. He was drafted by the Cowboys in 1988 and became the first player to win three consecutive Super Bowls (1992-94).
However, long before he became famous to us, Norton was an outstanding athlete at Jacksonville High School in Illinois.
He was a member of the state championship football team and was selected to the all-state team on defense as a senior in 1960. His track coach entered him in eight events, and Norton placed first in all of them. As a result, the “Ken Norton Rule,” which limits participation of an athlete to a maximum of three track and field events, was instituted in Illinois high school sports.
After graduating from high school, Norton went to Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) on a football scholarship and studied elementary education.
A bum shoulder prevented him from furthering his football career, but those gifted genes were passed along to his son.
Norton began boxing in the United States Marine Corps. From 1963-’67, compiling an impressive 24-2 record while winning three All-Marine Titles prior to turning professional in 1967.
Relishing in obscurity after debuting in San Diego and fighting exclusive between San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento, he knocked out 11 of his first 12 opponents.
Even while serving as a sparring partner to the late and former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, Norton was a rather anonymous figure until he met and defeated Ali in 1973 at the San Diego Sports Arena in a split decision. He broke Ali’s jaw in that fight which heightened his boxing profile.
Norton was awarded the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship when Leon Spinks chose to not to fight him, instead Spinks fought Ali.
However, in a rematch six months later at the Forum in Inglewood, Norton lost the heavyweight title in a competitive split decision to Ali.
Three years later in 1976, the two would fight for a third time at Yankee Stadium in a fight some believe that Norton actually won, but was awarded a split decision.
Norton would later say that Ali was boxing back then and if he had been granted the victory, it would have destroyed the sport.
The two became friends throughout the years and Norton would suffer notable defeats to the likes of Larry Holmes, Earnie Shavers and Gerry Cooney.
Norton finished with a record of 42-7-1 and 33 knockouts. He later went on to an acting career.
He starred in Mandingo and was supposed to play Apollo Creed in Rocky but when he pulled out, Carl Weathers was selected.
Norton was also a ringside TV and radio analyst until his car accident.
He was voted by Ring magazine as one of the top 25 heavyweights of all time (No. 22), and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
The sport of boxing lost one of its great figures in Ken Norton Sr., but we lost a champion who was considered our one and only.