There weren't any Pampers when Ken Norton was a single dad. That was what he remembered. There were cloth diapers, and they had to be washed, and they had to be dried, and then -- oops -- they were dirty again, and they had to be changed, and the process began all over again. He was in the middle of all of that.
"I stuck my hands in the poop," he later said, in a 1995 interview near his home in Laguna Nigel, Calif. "No man I knew was doing what I was doing. Not one. People couldn't believe it. I was a pretty good-looking guy, but I'd meet women, and when they found out I had a son? Forget it."
He was 22 years old in that diaper time, and then 23 and 24, and he was nowhere, trying to go somewhere, trying to punch his way out of the wet paper bag of domesticity that had been dropped on top of him. He was a Marine veteran, divorced, with custody of his son. They lived in one of the less refined neighborhoods of Los Angeles. They struggled. He worked on the production line at a Ford plant for a paycheck, and he worked on their escape route on the side.
Boxing. He worked at boxing.
"There were rough times," Norton said. "I wouldn't have wanted to buy one of those Fords I was making during the day. I hope someone else was checking them down the line."
His days were brutal. He would run in the morning, make breakfast for his son, go to work, go to the gym after work to spar and train, come home at seven o'clock at night to pick up his son from some neighbor's house. Diapers. He would do those diapers. He lived daily on the edge of exhaustion.
Boxing was not an enjoyable sport. Not to him. He didn't like it, never did, never would. The idea of trying to hurt someone else to get ahead was not appealing. He didn't like giving punishment, didn't like taking it. Boxing was a necessity. He was a good athlete and had seen some success, a touch of fame, in an assortment of sports, especially football, as a kid in Jacksonville, Ill. He hadn't taken advantage of his talents in those sports. Boxing was the last open door.
He was big at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. He was ungainly, because he had arrived late to the game, but had learned to make his ungainliness work for him. He was puzzling to opponents, a big guy who didn't follow the normal dance steps. For the longest time, no one could figure out that riddle.
He won his first 16 bouts, starting in late November, 1967, fighting almost exclusively around San Diego and Los Angeles. He had a hiccup when he was knocked out at the Olympic Auditorium in L.A., then climbed back to 28-1 and a spot on the undercard at the Sahara Hotel in Stateline, Nev., when Muhammad Ali fought Bob Foster in the main event. This was his breakout moment.
Norton knocked out Henry Clark in the 9th round. Ali knocked out Foster in the 7th. The win was part of Ali's comeback, his return to the ring after three and a half years in limbo, as he opposed the military draft. He already had lost to Joe Frazier in "The Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden. He was now rebuilding his résumé, working toward a rematch with Frazier for the heavyweight title.
Norton, now 29-1, seemed like a fine new name to add to that résumé. The fight was set for March 31, 1973, at the Sports Arena in San Diego. Norton was handed $50,000 for his services. His life was changed right there. The money was everything.
"The first thing I did was make a down payment on a tract house in a better neighborhood for me and my son," he said. "The second thing I did was quit my job at Ford. For the first time in my life, I could just train for a fight, go away for three weeks to a camp. I was a real fighter."
By the night of the fight, he felt stronger than he'd ever felt, "like I had a wrench in my pocket." He was not afraid of Ali, not overcome by the hype, as so many opponents were. He had sparred with Ali at the Overstreet Gym in Los Angeles. He thought Ali was a terrific boxer, yes, but still a boxer. Boxers can fall down. Boxers can be hurt.
In the 1st round, Norton unloaded a right hand that broke Ali's jaw. Ali showed great pluck, finishing out the 12 rounds, broken jaw and all, but Norton showed the benefits of real training. He captured a split decision, stunning everyone but himself. This was what he'd always intended to do. This was the escape route. Done.
"I was able to do all the things that I wanted to do now," he said. "I was able to do all the things for my son that I wanted to do."
Many other events happened in his career and his life, both good and bad. There were two more fights with Ali, both losses, the second one at Yankee Stadium, a 15-round decision that was controversial and close. There was a short reign as heavyweight champion. There was a famous 15-round loss to Larry Holmes, a fabulous fight, also controversial and close. There was the inevitable decline as a fighter, too long at the table, followed by a B-movie career, most notably as the handsome star of "Mandingo." There was a horrendous car crash in 1986 that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. There was the comeback from that trauma, long and hard and meaningful.
The son, Ken Norton, Jr., became an All-Pro linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, the first NFL player to be on three consecutive winning teams in the Super Bowl. The father, who died on Wednesday in Phoenix, age 70, following complications from a number of strokes, is remembered for many moments, large and famous, for the many things he did.
I like to remember him for washing diapers.
RIP, Ken Norton.