On this date in 1978 in Las Vegas, Larry Holmes edged Ken Norton by split decision in one of the greatest heavyweight title fights in history, to capture the WBC belt. Fighting through extreme heat, both men fought past the point of fatigue and battled to the wire in Round 15, relying on sheer will and guts.
In November 1977, Norton had won a title-eliminator fight with Jimmy Young to become the WBC’s mandatory challenger. But when Leon Spinks chose to rematch with Muhammad Ali instead, the WBC stripped Spinks and awarded Norton the belt. Holmes was his first defense.
It was a truly epic battle, with big momentum swings. Holmes won four of the first five rounds, to build a commanding lead, but Norton came on strong down in the last two-thirds of the bout. The decisive 15th round was among the most exciting in the history of the sport, as both men battled hard on fumes and made their case in the strongest terms possible.
After the fight, it was revealed that Holmes had damaged his bicep five days before the bout. He would hold the WBC belt until 1983, before vacating it to become the IBF champion, thereby giving the newly established IBF instant credibility. Holmes would hold that belt until 1985, when he was robbed against Michael Spinks in back-to-back fights. Holmes is the third longest reigning heavyweight champion in history, behind Joe Louis and Wladimir Klitschko. In my opinion, he’s among the most underrated heavyweight champions. I rate him a solid, top-five all-time heavyweight, with the best jab in the history of the division.
After losing to Spinks, Holmes would take two years off and lose badly to the surging Mike Tyson in 1988. He would return to action in the 1990s and turn in one of the greatest post-40 careers in boxing history, beating a very tough Ray Mercer and giving Evander Holyfield all he could handle in a title challenge.
For Norton, the Holmes’ fight was his last great moment. A tremendous natural athlete with one of the best physiques in the history of the sport, Norton had starred in football and track in his native Illinois. He was so dominant as a track athlete that the state instituted a “Ken Norton Rule,” limiting high school athletes to competing in only three events at a meet, in response to Norton single-handedly winning meets by entering and winning every event. After attending college on a track and football scholarship, Norton took up boxing in the Marines.
Under the tutelage of the immortal Eddie Futch, Norton developed into a true great at heavyweight. His well-coached, physical style proved to be something like kryptonite for the aging Ali. He beat “The Greatest” once and lost two very close decisions that many observers felt he deserved to win.