Ken Norton Sr. owns a boxing resumé with enough accolades to fill several great careers. A former heavyweight champion with a career record of 42 wins (33 by knockout), seven losses and one draw, Norton was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992. The Hall billed him as "a fixture in the heavyweight ranks during a time that many consider the finest era of the division." Upon Norton's death in 2013, boxing icon George Foreman, who defeated Norton in a 1974 title bout, tweeted, "They called us all handsome. Muhammad they called pretty. But The fairest of them all Ken Norton."
Fourteen years and 50 professional fights create plenty of memorable moments, but Norton's career will forever be marked by one perfect punch on a night full of standout blows.
Before his fight with Muhammad Ali in 1973, Norton was at a career crossroads. He was not financially secure in his boxing career and contemplated returning home to leave the sport behind. By sticking it out and earning a chance in the ring with Ali, he produced one of the most legendary moments in boxing history.
Few gave Norton a chance to beat Ali, who at this point in his career was attempting to climb back to championship form after losing to Joe Frazier in "The Fight of the Century" on March 8, 1971. According to Brian Hiro of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Ali himself called Norton an amateur during a pre-fight workout, and by all accounts regarded the upcoming fight as little more than a tune-up session. Following the Frazier defeat, Ali had strung together 10 consecutive wins in fewer than two years.
Tom Cushman, then a boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, recalled that Ali was "gloriously overconfident. He didn’t consider this guy a threat at all."
Once the fight began, it became clear that Norton's unorthodox, punch-from-below style was giving Ali fits. After Norton passed away, his friend Gene Kilroy—who was also Ali's former business manager—recalled how out of sorts Ali was when faced with Norton's unique approach.
"He had that awkward style, where he'd shoot his jab up from the waist, and it was very unusual," Kilroy told Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole in 2013. "Most guys throw the jab from the shoulder, and that always gave Ali trouble."
The loss was just the second of Ali's career, and it left many wondering whether he would hang up his gloves and retire. "It was the end of the road, as far as I could see," said Howard Cosell, per ESPN's Kieran Mulvaney. Ali and Norton would fight twice more—first on Sept. 10, 1973, and then on Sept. 28, 1976—with Ali winning both times. But neither match provided a moment as indelible as Norton's upset victory.
Most reports have Norton breaking Ali's jaw in the second round. Norton disputed that claim, insisting that he didn't break his jaw until the last round. Whenever the fateful punch occurred, the end result was the same—Ken Norton had defeated Muhammad Ali, forever etching his name in the boxing history books.