The phone rang suddenly at an odd hour and that was a jab. The concerned sounding voice of a friend asked if I was sitting down, another jab. “Ken Norton died today.” That was an overhand right.
I was dazed and had to sit down and take it in. Ken Norton died? I asked myself a few times if I had heard him correctly, as we all do when given unexpected news. He hung up rather abruptly to inform others about the loss of a great champion and a heck of a nice man.
For a time, back in my youth and in one of boxing’s glory days, the names Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier could hardly be mentioned without including Ken Norton, the former Marine who broke Ali’s jaw in one of their three epic battles. Norton, more than anything else, should be remembered as a true fighter, in the ring and in life.
Yes, he was one of the all time hardest hitting fighters, with a unique style that made it difficult for some of the sport’s best to stay in the ring with him, but he also had the courage of a lion. No fight in sports or in life is ever tougher than the fight to come back. Though he would never again reign as heavyweight champion after his grueling 15 round split decision loss to Larry Holmes, he battled a ferocious comeback in life.
In 1986, he was in a near fatal automobile accident that left him severely crippled. Doctors told him that he would never walk again. Through sheer willpower, Norton rehabbed his legs and though he would move slowly for the rest of his life, he did, in fact, walk again. His is the type of sports story that should be told and told often.
While I was a student at Jesuit High School, MJROTC Commander James Quinn, a retired Marine Corp Lt. Colonel, often spoke of his relationship with Norton during their days together in the Marine Corps. On a fall day in 1978, hoping to inspire me to bring more focus to my life, Quinn called Norton from the ROTC office at Carrolton and Banks and had the fighter talk with me about life. Ken Norton told me to get it right or he’d have to come to New Orleans and kick my ass. I graduated, not a sure thing at the time of the call.
Years later, I was with my friend, Larry Holmes, at an event at the Maxim Casino in Las Vegas that boasted every living heavyweight champion from Ingemar Johansson to Evander Holyfield, the then reigning champion. I was seated between Joe Frazier and Norton. After the two former champions were done verbally sparring, I mentioned to Ken that I had known Colonel Quinn and reminded him of the call all those years before.
Ken Norton, this great man who had hit so hard for so many years and who had battled back from paralysis, looked me in the eye with keen laser like focus for what seemed like an eternity. Honestly, it scared me just a bit…ok more than just a bit. But then an amazing thing happened. A tear formed in his right eye, followed by another in his left. As both drops slowly fell across his cheeks, he said, “I loved that man. He loved me too. I know he did. He cared about you. Must have, or he wouldn’t have asked me to talk to you.”
He put his arm over my shoulder and gave me a hug, then quickly went back to verbally sparring with Joe and Larry and the other champs. You see, whenever great champions gather, they can’t help but argue that they were the greatest.
Right now, in a better place, I’d imagine the verbal sparring between the newly arrived Ken Norton and Joe Louis, Joe Frazier, Jack Johnson, and the Great John L. Sullivan, among others, must be fierce.
Sound the bell 10 times, a fighter’s final 10 count. A champion has passed.