Scar Tissue Part 26: Ken Norton
By Jess E. Trail, Doghouse Boxing (June 18, 2008)  
He had a sculpted bronze torso atop thin, athletic legs. His face was handsome, with a stylish triangular hairline. His movements in the ring were by definition awkward, yet visually appealing. He donned his own looser-fitting version of the crossed-arms defense and had an occasional habit of dragging his right foot behind him. His right hand was smashing and often looped, either in overhand or roundhouse fashion and his left hook was crisp and powerful, with mind-numbing snap.

As his career peaked and his reflexes began to wane, his technique and defense tightened and his jab became straighter and more accurate. It was wonderful to watch him box, even to the end of his career.

Though externally defined as a slugger and a knockout artist, his words and responses when speaking revealed that what pleasured him was the artistry and the intelligent gamesmanship of the sport. This is why he reveled in his thrice crossing of swords with Muhammad Ali – the mental challenge. As he once said in an interview “A man who cannot think will never beat Ali.”

He was good enough to be champion in many eras. In fact, he was champion in his own. He was awarded the title after Leon Spinks chose to defend the title in an immediate return with Ali instead of defending against Norton in 1978. Some point to the fact he never successfully defended the title. However, Ken did not give himself the customary defense or two against mid-range or fringe contenders. He jumped in with Larry Holmes, one of the best heavyweights in the history of the division. And he lost by one point on one judge’s scorecard – the slimmest of margins.

What intrigues me most about the career of Ken Norton is little bits of insight over the years into the interesting mind and refreshing approach of an imposing and capable artist of the ring. In the film Champions Forever, a terrific presentation made in 1989 with footage and reflections by Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes and Norton, there is a large moment of revelation that quite frankly, put a lump in my throat. When the time came for the question “how do you want to be remembered?” in which everyone discusses their style, their place in history or some other element of their career and what they may have meant to the sport, Norton’s response transcended the sport. In fact, it transcended all sport and all elements of the physical. He said he wanted to be remembered as “a good being, a caring being who, although he was competitive, never wanted to hurt anyone.”

How many today in any sport, but particularly in midst of the rash and raging testosterone of the sport of boxing want to be remembered this way? I have discussed the past in this forum how we need all the good we can get. We need anything that is good and classy and tasteful. These things we can put on a board, on an easel or on a marquee and say, “See. It is a sport of noble men.”

Norton alluded to an unnamed opponent who he had tagged with a hook. He was about to throw again, but as Norton described it, the fighter was “gone.” And Norton walked away. I remember the bout. It was November 1978 in the first bout after his war with Holmes. He was in a bout with Randy Stephens. In a beautiful display of sportsmanship and compassion, he refused to hurt Stephens further.

In this edition of Scar Tissue, we put away the wax lips and the fake vomit for a moment of due respect. We tip our recently cleaned fedora, free of guacamole or beer stains to Ken Norton, one of our favorite icons of the sport during its best era.

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