LAS VEGAS (AP) — He was the second man to beat Muhammad Ali, breaking Ali’s jaw and sending him to the hospital in their 1973 heavyweight fight.
Ken Norton frustrated Ali three times in all, including their final bout at Yankee Stadium where he was sure he had beaten him once again.
Norton, who died Wednesday at the age of 70, lost that fight for the heavyweight title. But he was forever linked to Ali for the 39 rounds they fought over three fights, with very little separating one man from the other in the ring.
“Kenny was a good, good fighter. He beat a lot of guys,” said Ed Schuyler Jr., who covered many of Norton’s fights for The Associated Press. “He gave Ali fits because Ali let him fight coming forward instead of making him back up.”
Norton is the only heavyweight champion never to win the title in the ring, and boxing fans still talk about the bruising battle he waged with Larry Holmes for the title in 1978. But it was his first fight with Ali that made the former Marine a big name and the two fights that followed that were his real legacy.
Few gave Norton, who possessed a muscular, sculpted body, much of a chance against Ali in their first meeting, held at the Sports Arena in San Diego, where Norton lived. But his awkward style and close-in pressing tactics confused Ali, who fought in pain after his jaw was broken.
“Ali tore up his ankle while training and we were going to call the fight off but didn’t,” former Ali business manager Gene Kilroy said. “Ali said it’s not going to be that tough.”
It was, with Holmes breaking Ali’s jaw in the early rounds and having his way with the former champion for much of the night. The loss was even more shocking because Ali had only lost to Joe Frazier in their 1971 showdown and was campaigning for the title he would win again the next year against George Foreman in Zaire.
“Norton was unorthodox,” Kilroy said. “Instead of jabbing from above like most fighters he would put his hand down and jab up at Ali.”
Kilroy said after the fight Norton visited Ali at the hospital where he was getting his broken jaw wired. Ali, he said, told him he was a great fighter and he never wanted to fight him again.
Ken Norton Jr., a coach with the Seattle Seahawks, confirmed his father’s death to The Associated Press before handing the phone to his wife, too distraught to talk.
Norton had been in poor health for the last several years after suffering a series of strokes, Kilroy said.
“He’s been fighting the battle for two years,” he said. “I’m sure he’s in heaven now with all the great fighters. I’d like to hear that conversation.”
Norton didn’t have long to celebrate his big win over Ali. They fought six months later, and Ali won a split decision.
They met for a third time on Sept. 28, 1976, at Yankee Stadium and Ali narrowly won to keep his heavyweight title.
Norton would come back the next year to win a heavyweight title eliminator and was declared champion by the World Boxing Council when Leon Spinks decided to fight Ali in a rematch instead of facing his mandatory challenger. But on June 9, 1978, he lost a brutal 15-round fight to Holmes in what many regard as one of boxing’s epic heavyweight bouts and would never be champion again.
Norton finished with a record of 42-7-1 and 33 knockouts. He would later embark on an acting career, appearing in several movies, and was a commentator at fights.