Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who visited Norton at the veteran’s hospital in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, tweeted: “Ken Norton was always nice to me even when I was just an amateur fighter. He always treated me like I was somebody. Remarkable man.”
Ken Norton Jr. was a linebacker for 13 years in the NFL, playing for Dallas and San Francisco, and coaches the position for the Seahawks. He and his father were estranged for a time in the 1990s before finally reconciling.
Norton always gave his father credit for his career, saying he learned how to train hard by watching him go for early morning runs when he was a child.
“It’s been noted that my father and I are on speaking terms and everything’s back together now,” Norton Jr. said in 1995. “It’s part of what I do. No matter what I do, I can’t get away from boxing.”
Norton, born Aug. 9, 1943, in Jacksonville, Ill., started boxing when he was in the Marines, and began his pro career after his release from duty in 1967. He lost only once in his early fights but had fought few fighters of any note when he was selected to meet Ali.
At the time, Ali was campaigning to try to win back the heavyweight crown he lost to Joe Frazier in 1973.
After that bruising first bout, they faced off two more times, including the final fight at Yankee Stadium on a night when police were on strike and many in the crowd feared for their safety. The fight went 15 rounds and Ali won a decision.
Kilroy said Ali and Norton never had any animosity toward each other and became good friends over the years. Still, Norton always thought he had won all three fights.
Norton would come back in 1977 to win an eliminator against Jimmy Young and was declared champion by the WBC when Spinks was stripped of the title.
His fight against Holmes in 1978 at Caesars Palace was his last big hurrah, with the two heavyweights going back and forth, trading huge blows inside a steamy pavilion in the hotel’s back lot. The fight was still up for grabs in the 15th round and both fighters reached inside themselves to deliver one of the more memorable final rounds in heavyweight history.
When the decision was announced, two ringside judges favored Holmes by one point while the third favored Norton by a point.
Norton was badly injured in a near fatal car accident in 1986. He recovered but never regained his full physical mobility.
“The doctors said I would never walk or talk,” Norton said at an autograph session in 2011 in Las Vegas, lifting his trademark fedora to show long surgical scars on his bald head.
Kilroy said Norton was visited at the hospital by former fighters, including Tyson, Earnie Shavers and Thomas Hearns.
Norton fought only five more times after losing his title to Holmes. His final fight came Nov. 5, 1981, when he was knocked out in the first round by Gerry Cooney at Madison Square Garden.
Information on services and other survivors was not immediately released by the family.