Here is a link to my Thursday column about Ken Norton Sr. The full text runs below:
I’ve been thinking about Ken Norton, the heavyweight who broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw. Norton died in 2013.
After the Raiders hired Norton’s son, Ken Norton Jr., as defensive coordinator, my mind wandered down the corridor of years to the time I met his dad. Ken Norton was known as “The Black Hercules” for his classic physique, “The Fighting Marine” because he had been in the U.S. Marine Corps, and “The Jaw Breaker” because he broke the most famous jaw on Earth. Broke it March 31, 1973, and won a split decision over Ali.
Before that win, Norton had been a well-regarded West Coast fighter, mostly had a regional name. Now, he became world news. He had beaten “The Greatest.”
Norton was a very good fighter, not a great fighter. He was a very good man, and I’ll get to that in a moment. He fought Ali two more times, lost close decisions. Might have won the second fight. Lost a split decision to Larry Holmes, lost to an all-time great heavyweight in an all-time great fight.
But Norton had a flaw. His jaw was weak, especially for a heavyweight. He used a wade-in, knockout style. When he faced a hard puncher, his style — he was always available to be hit — worked against him. George Foreman took him out in two rounds, and Earnie Shavers and Gerry Cooney knocked him out in one.
A weak jaw — a glass jaw — is nothing to be ashamed of. Most people don’t know if they have a weak jaw. If you’re an auto mechanic, your jaw doesn’t come into play unless an outraged customer thinks you screwed up the brake job and takes a poke at you. A weak jaw is not a moral flaw like an irresistible urge to steal coffee-table books from Barnes and Noble. A weak jaw is an inherited fact of life like a beautiful profile or height or shoe size.
I met Norton in 1980 at a gym in L.A. He had not fought in a while, was in his late 30s, had contemplated retiring. He changed at his locker and packed his gear in an athletic bag and said we should talk outside. We sat on the steps outside the gym on a warm bright breezy afternoon. Norton spoke in his gravelly voice. He knew he was near the end.
He talked about Ali and Foreman, never made excuses for losing or getting knocked out. I asked what he was most proud of. I thought he would say beating Ali.
“Did you ever hear of Randy Stephens?” he asked.
I heard of him.
Norton said they had fought two years before. Norton got Stephens in trouble in the third round. It was his job to get people in trouble. Norton delivered a perfect left hook to the right side of Stephens’ jaw, and Stephens’ head shot back and he began to wobble.
Now, came the crucial moment when life intrudes on sport. When what you do defines who you are.
Stephens stumbled across the ring, but remained upright. He dropped his hands and could not defend himself. Norton followed him. Norton got ready to deliver the killer right cross. The coup de grace. Norton cocked his right fist near Stephens’ head.
Norton never threw the punch.
He watched Stephens fall slowly, descend to the canvas. Norton allowed him to fall. Stephens staggered to his feet but the referee stopped the fight.
“I was proud of what I did,” Norton told me.
In a split second when a person defines himself by a choice — no time to think it through — Norton decided it was wrong to hit Stephens one more time. Another punch could ruin a nice young man for life, affect his future in awful ways. Norton refused to be the agent of ruin.
A few days later, Norton received a letter from Stephens’ manager. The manager thanked Norton for not throwing the right hand, for being merciful, for saving Stephens. Norton told me he kept the letter, was grateful the manager wrote to him, was sure not punching Stephens was the right thing.
Norton fought twice more. Won a split decision over Randall “Tex” Cobb, a tough fighter but a journeyman. Norton’s final fight was against Gerry Cooney. Cooney was a ferocious left hooker and he was up and coming and he forced Norton to a corner in Round 1 and kept hitting his face. Norton fell to the lower rope, actually was sitting, couldn’t get away. Trapped. I’m sure Norton was unconscious. Cooney kept hitting him. The referee stopped the fight. Savage knockout.
I once asked Cooney why he never stepped back, stopped punching defenseless Norton, asked the referee to end the fight. Cooney looked at me in amazement. “What was I supposed to do?” he asked. “Stop punching and say, ‘Kenny, are you OK?’ He could have recovered and knocked me out.”
From a strictly logical point of view, Cooney was correct. It was not his job to choose mercy. It was the referee’s. I have no quarrel with Cooney. I don’t think Norton did, either.
But if the situation were reversed, Norton would have stepped back and appealed to the ref, performed the humane gesture. There is something to be said for the humane gesture.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn firstname.lastname@example.org.