By Thom Loverro
Ken Norton died last week at the age of 70. Part of a golden era of heavyweights, he held a version of the heavyweight championship, the World Boxing Council belt, though it was handed to him after Muhammad Ali refused to fight Norton, the mandatory WBC challenger, in 1978 and chose to fight Leon Spinks instead. Ali had seen enough of Ken Norton -- dating back to a little-known gym war with the rising heavyweight when Ali was banned from boxing.
Norton would lose the belt quickly, in a great 15-round battle with Larry Holmes. But he was best known for the three fights he had with Ali from 1973 to 1976, in which Norton won the first, breaking Ali's jaw, lost the rematch and then lost a controversial decision to Ali at Yankee Stadium in 1976, in a fight that many observers felt Norton had won.
The Ali-Norton connection goes back far beyond their first official fight in the ring in March 1973 at the San Diego Sports Arena, however, when Norton won a 12-round decision. Ali had already gone toe-to-toe with Norton years earlier -- while Ali was in exile from boxing from 1967 to 1970, when his title was stripped and he couldn't get licensed to fight because of his refusal to enter the armed services after being drafted during the Vietnam War.
Ali first fought Norton in a California gym -- a quiet, little scrap that Ali perhaps should have taken as a sign of bad things ahead when he finally did face Norton again in 1973.
The sign for Ali may have been the man training Norton that day in the gym - legendary boxing trainer Eddie Futch. "It was a war," Futch said of the Ali-Norton gym battle.
Futch, who passed away at the age of 90 in 2001, was arguably the greatest trainer the game has ever seen. Over 66 years in boxing, Futch trained 21 world champions, including Holmes, Riddick Bowe, Alexis Arguello and, most notably Joe Frazier. He was the mastermind behind the plan in the ring when Frazier defeated Ali in the "Fight of the Century" in March 1971 at Madison Square Garden.
He was Norton's manager and trainer as well, and, in an interview he did with me years ago, he said he knew that Norton would give Ali all he could handle and more.
"Ken Norton was big and strong, a rough guy," Futch said. "He joined the Marines and was a Marine in heart and toughness throughout his career. When I made the match with Ali, I knew Norton had the style to beat him."
Styles make fights. It is perhaps the most accurate cliché in all of sports. It was why Frazier could fight 42 brutal rounds with Ali over three fights from 1971 to 1975, be knocked out by George Foreman in two rounds in 1973, and then Foreman would lose to Ali in eight rounds when they met in the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974.
When Ali was in exile, he would travel around to boxing gyms around the country and find heavyweights to spar with him. One day, he came into the Hoover Street Gym in Los Angeles, where Futch was training Norton. After sparring with three heavyweights, Ali asked if anyone else was up for a sparring session. Someone told him Futch had a heavyweight that might be worthy of sparring with the deposed champion.
Ali asked Futch if his man was up for it, and Futch said yes. "I had been waiting for him to make the suggestion," he said.
The gym had already filled up when word spread of Ali's appearance. Futch pulled Norton aside before he got in the ring and told him, "Don't be a smart guy. Go in there and try to learn something. Just go along and work with him, don't try anything cute. But if he tries to take advantage of you, take care of yourself."
Norton did just that when he first began sparring with Ali. But with the gym filling up, Ali wanted to put on a show. So before the second round started, Ali declared loudly, "Okay, boy, I'm through playing with you. I'm going to put something on you now."
Futch told Norton, "Okay, now take care of yourself."
Ali didn't realize that Norton was stronger than perhaps any fighter he had ever faced. Ali tried to back Norton into a corner, and Norton picked him up and threw him into the corner. The crowd laughed, and Ali was embarrassed, Futch said. Ali thought he had simply lost his balance, so he tried to back Norton into a corner again, and again Norton manhandled him. The crowd went crazy.
"Now it developed into a war," Futch said.
They started throwing hard right hands at each other. Ali threw a right hand a little too long, and Norton pulled away and nailed Ali with a hard right counterpunch. "Now the crowd is really into, yelling and screaming," Futch said. "The place was wild."
They went at each other for another minute, and the bell sounded to end the round. Ali left the gym, but came back the next day, screaming "I want that Norton! I want that Norton!"
Futch told Norton, "Don't put your stuff on." Ali kept yelling, and asked Futch, "What's the matter, isn't he fighting today?"
Futch said he told Ali, "Yesterday you came in looking for a workout. Today you came in looking for a fight. When this kid fights you, he's going to get paid for it."
Norton did, several years later, and stunned the world by breaking Ali's jaw in the first of three epic fights, the seeds of which were planted in the Hoover Street gym that day.
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Thom Loverro is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who has covered sports in the nation's capital for two decades. He also co-hosts a sports talk radio show on ESPN 980 in Washington and is the author of 11 books.