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Foreman vs. Norton – 30 Years Later
By Tom Gray (March 26, 2004) 
George Foreman
With almost no exception the United States is the nucleus for the sport of professional boxing and with very good reason. The majority of challengers, far less champions, are American and the super fights which grace our sport, predominantly land in Las Vegas.

However, there was a time when the Heavyweight Championship of the World did belong to the world itself and not just a plush hotel in the desert. It is hard to believe, in this day and age, that there was a two year period in the seventies where a heavyweight title fight did not land in the United States. Instead the locations added just as much spice as the gladiators taking part; Jamaica, Tokyo, Venezuela and of course Kinshasa, Zaire. The championship was decided between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton and if you were over 200lbs and an active fighter at that particular time, then your luck just wasn’t in.

“Smokin” Joe Frazier had begun the decade as a champion and solidified his standing with a decision victory over arch enemy, Muhammad Ali, in what was arguably the greatest fight ever waged. However, it was George Foreman who created the biggest sensation on January 1973, when he battered Frazier senseless inside six minutes in Kingston, Jamaica. Foreman was carried from the ring that night, but it was the Jamaican natives who hoisted him aloft and not an emergency unit, for the new champion didn’t have a mark on him.

After a brief stop over in Japan and less than three minutes of work, against Joe “King” Roman, Foreman was obligated to fight the number one contender, Ken Norton. This match up was complex! Norton was a promising heavyweight who had turned pro in 1967 and enjoyed moderate success, until being knocked out by Jose Luis Garcia, in his first significant bout. He had rebounded from that set back and became a far better fighter under trainer, Eddie Futch and was selected as an opponent for Muhammad Ali on March 31st, 1973. He was on fire that afternoon in San Diego and Ali got burned more than once as Norton broke his jaw and took a split decision, only Ali’s mystique stopped it from being unanimous. This win earned Norton the number one contender spot, which he kept until Ali reversed the decision later that year. During the interim, Norton had agreed to fight Foreman for the title, regardless of the Ali rematch result.

Norton would later say that he was not ready for Foreman that night in Caracas, Venezuela, but he was never at his best against big hitters. Ken didn’t operate well on the back foot, which wasn’t good news against a puncher of Foreman’s proven ferocity. This would later be confirmed when Norton crumbled against Earnie Shavers and Gerry Cooney, both inside a round. Also, he had been chief sparring partner to Joe Frazier and shared a friendship with the ex-champion, so the task at hand must have seemed huge, considering Foreman’s recent destruction of his former employer.

It was still an attractive match up though, due to Norton’s two impressive showings against Ali and it was conceivable that it could be a very tough night for the champion from Texas. The first round saw Norton attempt to create angles and counter punch from the outside, he found success landing a few jabs and a couple of right crosses and survived the opening minutes without taking a serious blow. Muhammad Ali, who had picked Norton to upset the odds, was doing blow by blow commentary and could be heard yelling support for the Californian throughout. It proved futile as Foreman landed a big right hand in round two, which effectively ended the contest. Norton took an eight count and was immediately knocked down again, but bravely rose to face the inevitable. The champion flew at Norton again, landing a vicious combination of six punches that left the challenger helpless. The fight was called off with Foreman, staring daggers at his dazed victim.

When you look back, it isn’t hard to see why Foreman was a prohibitive 6-1 on favourite to crush Muhammad Ali, in his next contest. Of course we know that didn’t happen, but the sheer savagery of Foreman’s victory convinced most people that Ali’s chances were slim. George would never look better and it was arguably a career best performance. The final combination, which ended matters against Norton, was deadly and the challenger was in no condition to get up five or six times like Frazier had. Unfortunately for Foreman, it would be his last title win for twenty years.

Norton would carry on boxing, earning great wins over the likes of Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Young. He would also finish a very close second in a rubber match with Ali for the title, which many fans thought he had won. In 1978, he was awarded the WBC crown by default when Leon Spinks refused to fight him and finally his dreams were fulfilled. His first defence was against Larry Holmes and he fought the fight of his life in a classic encounter, but lost on a razor thin decision. He got out of boxing at the right time, but was involved in a terrible car crash in 1986, which would have killed him had he not been such an extraordinary athlete. It is a common misconception by casual observers that Norton’s speech has been affected by boxing, which is a tragic oversight.

Foreman would get out of boxing in 1977, after losing a decision to Jimmy Young. He found religion and disappeared off the map until 1987, when he returned on a quest to regain the crown. Everyone laughed until Michael Moorer hit the canvas in 1994 and “Big George” became the oldest heavyweight champion in history at the age of forty five. Let’s hope there are no more comebacks ten years later, but if there is then remember not to chuckle!

There has been a wealth of great champions and great fights since those globe trotting years thirty years ago. Let’s just hope the heavyweight division can be half as good again…
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