Muhammad Ali

Jacksonville’s Norton a top heavyweight in star-studded era

In decades past, boxing was one of the most popular sports in America, led by the heavyweight division.

A Jacksonville native was one of the greatest of all time.

Ken Norton competed in an era with some of the sport’s biggest stars and won 42 of 50 career fights, holding the World Boxing Congress heavyweight title in 1978. Though he was overshadowed by the larger-than-life Muhammad Ali and the charismatic George Foreman, Norton let his style do the talking.

In 1998, Norton was listed as one of the 25 greatest heavyweights of all time. Longtime boxing publicist Bill Caplan once said Norton was “in the club of the top four heavyweights” of his era.

Known for his class and dignity, Norton was lauded by one writer for his “fortitude and positive mindset” as well as “uncommon character and perseverance.” After Norton’s death, Foreman simply said, “I take solace that I had the chance to be friends with him.”


Born in Jacksonville on Aug. 9, 1943, Norton was a multi-sport star at Jacksonville High School, earning all-state football honors in 1960, his senior season. He also was a versatile track standout.

In one meet, Norton’s coach entered him in eight events; he won seven of them. Reportedly, this led the Illinois High School Association to implement the “Ken Norton Rule,” limiting an athlete to four events.

Norton attended Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) for two years on a football scholarship while majoring in elementary education. From 1963 to 1967, he served in the Marines, where he became interested in boxing. He won 24 of 26 matches while in the service and held the all-Marine heavyweight title three times.

In 1967, Norton turned professional and notched his first career win with a fifth-round technical knockout in a bout in San Diego that Nov. 14. He won the first 16 matches of his career.

A friend and sparring partner of Joe Frazier, Norton approached the ring in a calm, positive state of mind. He once said “life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man, but sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.” A student of the sport, Norton once commented that “in boxing, and in all of life, nobody should ever stop learning.”

On Nov. 21, 1972, Norton beat his most significant opponent to date, veteran Henry Clark, in a ninth-round technical knockout at the Sahara Tahoe in Nevada. A unanimous, 10-round decision over Charlie Reno followed three weeks later as Norton improved to 29-1 all time. Still, Norton was a relative unknown; one writer claims he earned a mere $300 for the win over Reno.


The highlight of Norton’s career came on March 31, 1973, in San Diego, when he faced Ali for the first time. The heavily favored Ali walked into the ring dressed in a robe presented to him by Elvis Presley.

Norton later revealed he had used hypnotism to handle Ali’s brashness. Indeed, Norton’s reticence was a stark contrast to Ali’s flamboyance.

Norton’s boxing manner posed a severe problem for Ali. A 2013 source described Norton’s “awkward style and close-in pressing tactics,” while Ali’s former business manager noted that “Norton was unorthodox. Instead of jabbing from above like most fighters, he would put his hand down and jab up at Ali.”

The match was televised on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” giving the nation one of its first looks at Norton. He didn’t disappoint; he stood up to the vaunted Ali for 12 rounds and prevailed in a split decision to earn the North American Boxing Federation heavyweight title. Many onlookers believed the decision should have been unanimous, the first of many controversies in the Ali-Norton series.

Norton landed one of the most famous blows of his era, inflicting a quarter-inch-wide fracture on Ali’s jaw. Norton later wrote that, after the victory, “I cried tears of joy and was on a natural high, higher than any I’d ever felt before or since.”

Ali and Norton met again on Sept. 10, 1973, at the Forum in Inglewood, California, and the outcome was again highly debated. In a 12-round bout billed as “The Revenge: Battle of Broken Jaw,” the outcome went to a split decision favoring Ali, despite what one writer called “a huge second-half rally” from Norton.


Norton’s next opponent for the heavyweight crown was Foreman, in a bout March 26, 1974, in Caracas, Venezuela. Foreman scored a quick win in a technical knockout in the second round.

On March 24, 1975, Norton regained the NABF title with a technical knockout in the fifth round over another star of the time, Jerry Quarry, at Madison Square Garden. Four more wins followed, setting up a third meeting with Ali on Sept. 28, 1976, at Yankee Stadium, with the World Boxing Association, WBC and Ring titles on the line.

In a bruising, 15-round bout, the result was even more controversial than before. Ali was handed a unanimous decision, which Boxing Monthly later assessed as one of the most disputed title fights in boxing history. For the rest of his life, Norton believed he should have won that fight.

The three Norton-Ali meetings are among the best in the history of the sport. Norton was described by one writer as “Ali’s stumbling block.”


Norton followed the Ali decision with an impressive technical knockout after just 58 seconds over Duane Bobick at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 1977, in a nationally televised bout. In March 1978, Norton was awarded the WBC heavyweight title following an association dispute with Ali and Leon Spinks. It meant little to him. He later wrote, “At no time did I ever want to be known as a paper champion.”

He promptly lost his first match as the titleholder, against the undefeated Larry Holmes on June 9, 1978, at Caesars Palace. In a meeting of two powerful athletes, Holmes and Norton pounded away on one another and, entering the 15th and final round, all three scorecards were tied at 133.

The final round was described as “among the most robustly dramatic three-minute segments in boxing history” as the competitors “traded non-stop bombs and refused to cede an inch” in a “performance that epitomized the term ‘championship boxing.’” Two of the three judges awarded the win to Holmes.

Like the Ali fights, the Norton-Holmes match is considered one of the greatest ever. Afterward, Norton was praised for the “blend of class, honesty and self-criticism … traits (that were) an extension of the man himself.”


Norton never recaptured his stature in his final fights and retired after a technical knockout only 54 seconds into a bout with Gerry Clooney on May 11, 1981, at Madison Square Garden. His career record was 42-7-1.

Meanwhile, he began an acting career, appearing in 1975 in the film “Mandingo,” a box-office success that was blasted by critics. He also was in episodes of “Knight Rider” and “The A-Team” and became a radio and television analyst for boxing. In addition, Norton devoted considerable time and effort to charitable pursuits.

However, his life changed on Feb. 23, 1986, when he was involved in a serious, one-car accident on the Santa Monica Freeway. He suffered fractures to his skull, jaw and leg. His mobility and speech never fully recovered, and he endured a string of health issues in his later years.

Married three times, Norton fathered four children, including Ken Norton, Jr., who also was born in Jacksonville and was a three-time Pro Bowl pick in a stellar NFL career from 1988 to 2000, then spent 12 years as an NFL assistant coach, most recently as the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Norton once wrote that “of all the titles I’ve been privileged to have, the title of ‘dad’ has always been the best.”

Ken Norton died on Sept. 18, 2013, and was brought back to Jacksonville for burial in East Cemetery.

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