On this day, in 1973, Ken Norton beat Muhammad Ali via 12-round split decision, giving the great champion his second career loss. Norton broke Ali’s jaw in Round 2, forcing him to fight the rest of the way in excruciating pain.
Frazier is Ali’s most famous rival, but an argument could be made that Norton was his toughest. Six months after their first fight, Ali evened the score, winning by split decision. Ali won the rubber match in 1976, fought in Yankee Stadium.
But to this day, you can still find fans who will insist that Norton should have won all three. Norton was a prized pupil of Eddie Futch, arguably the greatest trainer to ever live. Ali always had trouble with Norton’s powerful and athletic style of pressure fighting.
By any estimation, Norton has to be considered the fourth best heavyweight of the 1970’s, ranking behind only Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier. The 1970s were a decade in which the heavyweight division was filled with a dazzling amount of talent.
Nicknamed “Black Hercules,” Norton was one of the greatest pure athletes in the history of the heavyweight division. In the state of Illinois, a special “Ken Norton Rule” was instituted for high school track meets, limiting the number of events an athlete could enter. The teenage Norton had made it a habit to enter and win every event.
Norton’s last great moment came in 1978, when he lost a split decision to Larry Holmes. In my book, the Holmes-Norton battle ranks as one of the top five heavyweight battles in history. The 15th and final round was particularly brutal.
Nine months after losing to Holmes, Norton was knocked out in the first round by Earnie Shavers. After drawing with Randall Cobb in 1980, Norton was blown out in one round by the rising Gerry Cooney in 1981, the final fight of his career.
Also on this date, in 1878, the first African-American heavyweight champion in history, Jack Johnson, was born in Galveston, Texas. Johnson captured the title in December, 1908 when he battered Tommy Burns. Johnson’s 1910 defense against former champion, James Jeffries, was billed as “The Fight of the Century.” The racist attitudes of the early 20th century caused Johnson to be driven from the country when he fled trumped up Mann-act charges for daring to consort with white women.
Today Johnson is remembered as one of the top 10 heavyweight champions in history. Many would rank him in the top five.