There is a tenseness peculiar to heavyweight championship fights. The anticipation always builds too early; the weeks of waiting always seem full of the threat of sudden violence and the promise of a conclusive ending. All heavyweight championship fights engender this atmosphere, yet George Foreman and Ken Norton offer something more—an almost palpable promise of mutual aggression.
This is no Liston vs. Patterson or Frazier vs. Ali, this match next week in Caracas, Venezuela. Both challenger and champion seem driven to attack. We have seen the challenger work—and he is a puncher. And if George Foreman, the destroyer of Joe Frazier, is a puncher for the ages he still seems not fully tested. Ken Norton, the body, the mind, the man who chased down Muhammad Ali and broke his jaw, then held him all but even less than six months later, could be the one to do the testing. It should be quite a fight, while it lasts.
George Foreman says, softly, "I don't slap people around so they can yell how they'll beat me the next time. After the referee is done counting, they just want to get away."
Foreman won his title in Jamaica, he smashed Jose (King) Roman in Japan and now he has flown off to Venezuela. He is a wandering champion who has never defended his title inside his own country. Manager Dick Sadler says, "We go where the money is best," but there clearly is more to it than that. Besieged by pending and threatened lawsuits, Foreman's flights may be from legal troubles, not smaller purses.
"Are you awed by Foreman's power?" Ken Norton is asked.
"Awed?" He is incredulous that anyone could ask if Kenneth Howard Norton Sr. is awed by anything. "Awed? No. I respect it, but it will just make me fight a better fight. If I was awed, I wouldn't fight at all."
On the wall of Norton's training-camp bedroom there is a crudely lettered sign that reads: I WILL BEAT GEORGE FOREMAN. KEN NORTON.
On a chain around Norton's neck there is a medal that was given him by the Napoleon Hill Academy, producers of a cassette course he is taking called The Philosophy of Success. According to the Academy, this medal has been given only six times in 60 years, which puts Norton in some rather exclusive company: the first two recipients were Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
One chapter of the course Norton studies is entitled "Autosuggestion." "Many times a day I repeat instructions to myself," he says, "and after a while they become conditioned reflex. Say Foreman pins me in a corner: I throw a hook or a right hand and spin out. Or say I get knocked down; I tell myself I won't rush right back in. I keep repeating these things, to get them embedded in my subconscious mind so when the time comes I won't have to think."
He adds, "Wait till I hit Foreman on the chin."
"What will he do?" Norton is asked.
"He's gonna panic," Norton replies, "and I'll hit him again, and again and again....
"Yeah," he continues, "it's easy to say what I'll do, but when you get hit, you don't think straight. When the time comes, you do what is embedded in your subconscious."
For Norton it has been a race to get the right things embedded in time.
It was February 1973, a month after Foreman had overpowered Frazier, and Foreman was in San Diego where Ali was training for the first Norton fight. Ali was sparring when Foreman strolled in, and Ali began ranting, shouting about how Foreman was ducking him. Then Foreman was up in the ring and—what a shocking thing to see—the new heavy-weight champion of the world lay down on his back in his street clothes and allowed Muhammad Ali to stand over him, a triumphant foot on his stomach. For a man of demonstrated confidence it seemed an act of humility, the uneasy gesture of a very young man searching for a role. And George Foreman hasn't changed in that regard.
When he disdainfully left the second Ali-Norton fight after the fourth round he said it was because he had seen enough. But recently he added, "The guys trained, the people were interested.... It was awfully offensive to walk out on a good performance like that." Three weeks ago, following a workout in which he had knocked a sparring partner unconscious, Foreman said, dispassionately, "Sometimes it gets awfully hard on these guys. Even if I tap them, it hurts. But I want to be the most destructive man in the whole world. I want to be an executioner."
Dick Sadler nodded and smiled. "The Friendly Executioner," he said.
The Friendly Executioner is an apt enough nickname for Foreman. He may be given to utterances such as, "I'm heavyweight champion of the world, and you can come up and slap me," but no one who has followed his career would even dream of it. In 1970 he knocked Jack O'Halloran down in the fourth, then thunderously out in the fifth. A year later he knocked out Luis Pires in four, and Pires suffered a broken arm—while blocking a Foreman punch. And for Norton, Foreman has been working to increase his punching power.
He trains with a heavy bag held stationary by Sadler, a very brave man. Sometimes Foreman pounds it for nine minutes nonstop. Just watching him can be a near-terrifying experience; the rafters shake. It is hard to imagine anyone surviving many of those punches, much less remaining on his feet.
"Foreman's left jab can stop a man in his tracks," says former California heavyweight champion Henry Clark, one of his sparring partners. "The strongest man I've ever worked with," says another, Eddie (Bossman) Jones, a light heavyweight who has worked with many top heavyweights. That list includes Norton, who ranks second in Bossman's ratings.
Talk of Foreman's strength always turns to his controversial habit of putting his gloves on the shoulders of an incoming opponent and pushing him away and off balance, as he did with Frazier. No one had ever handled Frazier so casually. But Norton says, "It's an illegal movement. My trainer will be aware of it, and the referee, too."
It will be something to watch for, to see if Norton can get in close without being pushed away. But Norton can reach Foreman from outside, too. His reach is half an inch longer than the champion's, and even Terry Hinke, a Foreman sparring partner of Norton's height and reach but not his experience, has had occasional success in getting to Foreman's head with his jab.
Much of Foreman's punching power originates in his heavy legs. Norton's legs are slim by comparison, but his upper body is one of the most impressive ever seen in a boxing ring. He does not always utilize its power fully. His punches are often wide and sweeping—arm punches that strike with the inside of his fist. Even Norton's sparring partners say they don't hurt. "Tight, tight," is something Norton always hears in the gym. "Tight, tight," he repeats to himself, and when he does tighten up, gets his shoulders into his punches and twists his hands to hit with the front of his fists, no one wants to stand there and take it. It is another thing he must get embedded as quickly as possible.
In some ways Norton has been training even harder than Foreman. He does things Foreman doesn't do: dynamic-tension neck exercises with his trainer, Bill Slayton, holding his head; punching a double-ended speed bag as well as the usual kind; doing 50 sit-ups each morning and 70 each afternoon to harden his rippled midsection. He also punches the heavy bag, a free-swinging one. Unlike Frazier, Norton is not overconfident for Foreman.
Norton is faster on his feet than Frazier and more skilled in avoiding punches to the head, but sooner or later he will have to do some serious punching. Preferably sooner. He has been working to correct a tendency to wait too long for openings. Some experts think this cost him the second Ali fight, and in sparring sessions Slayton yells, "Hit him on the arms." Later Slayton reminds Norton, "Doing that always keeps the other guy busy. Even a good defensive figher can't block every punch."
Foreman, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have a waiting problem. He threw 37 punches in one round against Roman. Two of them landed, and Roman was through.
The word most often used to criticize Foreman's fighting style is clumsy. He gets the job done, it is said, but a clever boxer could make him look bad. Slayton says, "Norton is a scientific fighter, and Foreman is very crude." Perhaps all this is true, but Foreman did not seem crude in training. Bossman Jones has very fast hands, and he swarmed all over Foreman, but the big man waved those great arms around and did not get hit.
Hinke, whose favorite word for Foreman is "devastating," says, "Lots of people say how fast Ali is. Well, George hasn't even used his speed in a fight yet. He hasn't had to. I hope, for the public's sake, that when George is smashing Norton that somewhere along the line he takes time to play with him." Sparring partners always tend to favor their employers, but no one in the Norton camp is saying anything like that.
"He may be stronger than I am," Norton says, "but not by much. And I'm faster. I'll slap some of his punches and counter some—and if I'm in a position to hit, I'll hit. But I'm certainly not gonna stand there and let him hit me." The last is a reasonable enough statement by anyone hoping to survive even the first few rounds with Foreman.
By the third round, should the fight reach that point, Norton would have Foreman where he has not been since 1971. Foreman has fought only twice in the last 14 months. He went only two minutes with Roman, less than two rounds with Frazier and he hasn't taken a punch thrown with serious intent since Frazier bounced a left hook off his jaw—to no effect—in their first round. Norton, by contrast, has fought the 24 most challenging rounds of his career in the last year. In the second 12 against Muhammad Ali, a fight he is convinced he won, he was an improved fighter.
Both Norton and Foreman will be ready physically, but Foreman's inactivity could work against him if the fight goes on for long. As he freely admits, "You can't get the kind of tension sparring that you get in a real fight."
It was almost time to leave for Venezuela. Foreman ran up a road in Pleasanton, Calif. that could double as a cliff. Then he napped and awoke to review his huge collection of blue denim outfits, including caps. He dressed, ate a fighter's breakfast, then hunched down in his motel lobby, his cap low over his eyes, not talking or moving. Later, on one of those evening walks all fighters seem to take, he said, "The weak fall by the wayside and the strong survive. But if you get beat up, it doesn't mean you're not strong: you're still strong if you accept it.
"A man told me that once in Hawaii there was this big storm, and he looked into a phone booth afterward and saw a straw sticking right through the thick glass door. And there's guys who can figure out how to get all those astronauts to the moon and back—how many times they'll use the rest room—and maybe some of those guys don't even have legs. So there's all kinds of strength. I bet somewhere there's even a math genius who can figure out something like how to balance a hundred-pound weight on top of a toothpick.
"You tell Norton," he said, "that he's messing around with a mathematician who is figuring out how to zero in on his head."
The same day in Gilman Hot Springs, Calif. Norton ate three huge steaks, did a workout and a half and read, for the fourth time that week, his favorite stanza from his favorite poem:
If you think you are beaten, you are.
If you think you dare not, you don't.
If you like to win, but you think you can't,
It's almost certain you won't.
At dinnertime Norton swaggered down to his motel dining room, the best dressed of many well-dressed men present. He showed off his two silver bracelets and three rings whose total weight was a pound or so. The newest was an inch-high volcano of platinum and 24 diamonds. A band was playing dance music, but Norton amused himself by furtively pitching olives across the dim room at a group of puzzled friends. He growled deeply toward a busboy, who looked stricken until he identified the sound. He bit his favorite waitress playfully on the arm, and she chased him around the table. Then he took his walk, reflective for a change.
"Yes, sir," he said, "this is gonna be a tough fight."
Apparently he still had some embedding to do.