If a navigator were to plot the career course of Kenneth Howard Norton, the chart would show a seemingly aimless path of zigzags and curves. This is because for most of the journey Norton wanted to be something other than a fighter. Yet here he is, a man with a piece of the world heavyweight championship, and this Friday night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, he defends his WBC title for the first time, facing undefeated and largely unknown Larry Holmes. Norton sees the fight as a screenplay.
"There is a movie script in here somewhere," he was saying at his secluded and serene training base, the unserenely named Massacre Canyon Inn at Gilman Hot Springs, Calif. "It was written a long time ago. The names of the players: Norton and Holmes. The supporting cast. The action, every punch, every small drama. And, at the end, the name of the winner. By a knockout. Or a decision. The end is preordained. It is our destiny. Mine and Larry's.
"I have to believe now that fighting was my destiny," says the 32-year-old ex-Marine. "What else could you call it? Nothing was planned. I never intended to be a fighter. In the Corps I only started boxing because I was unhappy with the football team and I was bored with getting up for reveille every day. As a pro I was just using boxing as a means to meet the right people. I hoped they would open the right doors for me. Boxing wasn't an end, it was a means to an end. When they pay you only $300 for a 10-rounder—and it is your 30th fight and you are pushing 29 and raising a young son by yourself—well, you don't sit around dreaming about being a champion. Not if you are realistic. And hungry. What you think about is finding a good job and starting a new career."
Norton had just showered after a particularly hard workout, and now, dressed in slacks and a T shirt, he sprawled across the king-sized bed in his motel room. From the window he could see his eggshell white Cartier-edition Lincoln Mark IV Continental parked under a nearby copse of dogwood trees. At his ranch house in the exclusive La Dera Heights section of Los Angeles there is a buckskin-colored customized Sting Ray, a customized van, a white Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce and a 1978 Ford station wagon. And he has on order a $50,000 Clenet; only 300 will be made.
June 11, 1978
Norton is a millionaire, perhaps more than once. Certainly after the Holmes fight he won't be any poorer. His purse for this first title defense will be $2.7 million. For his last previous fight, the 15-round title-elimination win over Jimmy Young—which led to Norton's being named champion by the WBC—he earned $1.5 million. He collected small fortunes for his starring roles in the movies Mandingo and Drum. "Kenny will never need for anything," says Bob Biron, his manager, friend and financial overseer. "All his money is tied up in widows' and orphans' funds. It's safe."
But Norton will not permit himself to forget the time, not many years ago, when he had pressing need for so simple a thing as half a gallon of milk for his son Kenny Jr.
Looking out the window at his Lincoln, Norton became reflective. He thought back to Dec. 13, 1972, the night he fought Charlie Reno 10 tough rounds before 700 people in San Diego. He was paid $300. His professional record was 29-1. "Those were the desperate years. Life was a monster," Norton said. "Once I even planned on robbing a liquor store. I mean, I was going to walk in, hit the dude in the mouth and rip him off. That's how big a monster my life was then. But I could never rob anyone. And for that I can only thank God for the way I was brought up."
Ken Norton was brought up in Jacksonville, Ill., a farming community of 20,000 people near Springfield in the central part of the state. He was born there on Aug. 9, 1945, the only child of middle-income parents: John, a small man, 5'6" but feisty, an engineer in the fire department, and Ruth, a hospital therapist. He admits that they spoiled him badly.
Norton was a gifted athlete early on. He first won public notice in the second grade when he won five events at a Junior Olympic meet. From that point he just became better, mostly without trying. "Sometimes I think it all came too easily for me," he says. "When you are always bigger and faster and stronger than everyone else, there is never anyone to push you. You never really find out how good you can become."
By the time he was a freshman entering Jacksonville High, where he became a hometown legend in football, basketball and track, Norton had grown to 5'11" and 156 pounds. When he was graduated in 1961, he was 6'3" and 198. And by that time he had a physique of the kind cast in bronze and pedestaled in an art museum.
Al Rosenberger, who coached Norton in three sports at Jacksonville, says, "When Ken left us he was all man. His growth in four years was tremendous, but it never seemed to bother him. He grew, but his speed and skill, his agility and his talent, grew with him. His only problem was that he had so much natural ability he was totally unpredictable."
When properly motivated, then as fm now, Norton could be spectacular. In one track meet he entered eight events on a whim. He won five, finished second in three. As a senior, he amassed 288 points in a single track season, a record that still stands and most likely will never be topped. The following year state athletic officials passed a rule—the Norton Law—limiting an athlete to four events in one meet.
As a football and track star, Norton was sought by 86 colleges, among them Miami, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Michigan and Missouri. But he turned down the big-time football powers and went to Northeast Missouri State College, which offered the security of being not very far from home.
Candid as always, Norton admits, "All my life I was involved in sports and in chasing the ladies. I never had to study hard to make good grades. Everything I did was easy. The result was that I was a little spoiled brat, only 17, and an only child who had always been protected, always got what he wanted. I chose a college close to home because...I don't know if it was a lack of confidence or what. I just didn't want to venture that far from home."
Still, Norton's freshman football season at college was less than a success, mostly because he tried to play despite a collarbone broken during a fistfight two weeks before the season opened. The bone was broken when the man he fought ran into him with a car. The only other fight he can remember having as a youngster took place when, at the age of 14 and standing 5'11", he challenged his diminutive father.
"Are you sure?" said John Norton.
"Yes, sir," said Ken.
"Then put up your hands."
As Norton's hands started to come up, his father hit him in the mouth. End of fight.
In his second year at Northeast Missouri, Norton decided college was not for him, and one day, without a word to anyone, he enlisted in the Marines.
"I was afraid of becoming a teacher and going home and getting stuck there," he says. "I could see nothing but doing nothing day after day. I never had any racial problems at home, because I was a good athlete. But there was a lot of prejudice in the town, and for blacks there was no chance of advancement. The best thing a black could become in that town was a policeman."
Norton saw the Marine Corps as a challenge. He knew if he made it through, he'd come out a better man. Never before had he been made to accept responsibility, not even for himself. It was a choice he has never regretted. "The Corps taught me who I was and what color I was. I didn't know I was black. But in the Corps everything is on a one-on-one basis, and I found out what color I was, and it made me proud to be black. For that, I am grateful to the Corps."
Trained to be a radioman, Norton was assigned to Camp Lejeune, and soon he was a left halfback on the football team. There was another left halfback—a white officer. Norton didn't play much. Discouraged, he quit the squad, and at the urging of a friend he went out for the boxing team.
Until that moment he had only watched a few fights on television with his father. Now he discovered he liked the sport; at the same time—as an otherwise accomplished athlete—he was embarrassed by his incompetence. Not until everyone else had left the gym would he jump rope or shadowbox. He was too self-conscious to train in front of others. It was several steps down from his accustomed star status.
The only real boxing coach he ever had, Pappy Dawson, was killed in a bus accident two weeks after Norton joined the team. After that Norton learned by watching others. He would show up early at tournaments and watch every bout. In his first year he won 10 of 11 fights, mostly on muscle. He became a three-time All-Marine champion and in 1967 won the Pan-American Trials. Then he was told they were taking another heavyweight to the Games. They told Norton his style wasn't "international" enough. He never fought as an amateur again.
When he left the Marines, Norton was approached by Art Rivkin, a San Diego Coca-Cola distributor who had refereed several of his service fights. Rivkin wanted him to turn pro. He said he could put together a group of four businessmen who would pay him $100 a week plus a share of his purses.
Norton had never considered fighting as a professional, but he feared his only other prospect was a return to Jacksonville. He had been married while in the Marines, but that had gone sour and he was left alone with an infant son. A boxing career, he decided, would give him the opportunity to meet a variety of people, to knock on a few doors, and it would give him time to discover what he really wanted to do with his life. Rivkin, Biron, Lloyd Schunemann and A. B. Polansky became his backers.
"The picture Art painted for me was so vivid I could just visualize all the money I'd be raking in," Norton says. "What I made was zilch. What my son and I lived on was that $100 a week. For one hell of a long time."
Although his backers lived in San Diego, it was decided that Norton would live and train in Los Angeles. Sparring partners were scarce in San Diego. Eddie Futch, who lived in L.A., became Norton's trainer and, for the moment, his manager of record.
In his pro debut on Nov. 14, 1967, Norton knocked out Grady Brazell in five rounds. He won his first 16 fights, all by knockout. Then on July 2, 1972 Norton was knocked out by Jose Luis Garcia, whom he later destroyed in five rounds. That loss to Garcia—for which Norton blames overconfidence—was only a temporary setback; he won his next 13 fights, eight of them inside the limit. His record was now 30-1. His bank balance was zero.
At one point during the bleak years Norton called home. "Dad, can you send me some money?" he asked. "I can't make it here. I want to come home."
"No," said John Norton. "Ken, if you quit now, the next hard thing that comes along you'll quit that, too. No, you stick with it. You've got to finish something. Finish this."
With a rueful smile, Norton says that if his father had sent him the money he'd now be back in Jacksonville. And, most likely, a policeman.
"I was desperate," he says. "There was never enough of anything—money, food, clothing. I'd leave Kenny with some people while I trained, and then I'd purposely stay late. I knew if I didn't come home they'd feed him. A lot of people were awfully good to Kenny and me during those years. The people must have known what I was doing, but they never said a word. It was during those times that I actually considered robbing a liquor store. Or a supermarket. When a man is desperate enough, when he has a family to feed and no money, I guess he'll consider anything."
If Norton never considered becoming heavyweight champion, Bob Biron, now 65, gave even less thought to becoming a fight manager. He has been a vice-president of Northrup Aircraft, of TWA, of General Dynamics and vice-chancellor of the University of California at San Diego. At present he is a major Southern California real-estate developer and the owner of the La Jolla Village Inn in San Diego. "Kenny is the only fighter I've ever had, and he's the only one I ever will have," says Biron, who, as a law student, was on the boxing team at the University of Minnesota. "I'm still amazed that I ever got involved in boxing at all.
"At first I was content just to be one of the backers. Futch was doing a good job. In the beginning he handpicked the opponents, getting all the old trial horses for Kenny to bang away on. But then, as his career progressed, it was apparent Ken needed my experience as a negotiator. At one point in Kenny's career, all the money was going to the opponents, to the James J. Woodys and the Jack O'Hallorans. We needed them, and it cost money to bring them from the East. To get opponents like that, all we could get from the promoter was a percentage of what was left over. And a lot of times that was nothing. A lot of times we'd dip into our own pockets and give Kenny $300 or $400 as a token."
But on March 31, 1973, Norton finally got the big break. Shopping for a soft touch, Muhammad Ali's people offered him $50,000 to fight the then ex-champion for (and here they laughed) 12 rounds. Norton told them that for $50,000 he'd fight the Russian army.
A few weeks before the fight Biron received a telephone call from Bob Arum, the promoter. "Hey," Arum said, "can your guy last more than two rounds? If not, with the fight on ABC, we are going to look awful silly."
Biron told Arum not to worry about it.
Howard Cosell, who did the fight telecast, called it the worst mismatch in boxing's history, a disgrace. That was before the fight. Later, after Norton had broken Ali's jaw on his way to an easy upset victory by decision, Cosell made it a point to apologize.
"Kenny, you made me look silly," he said.
"That's O.K., Howard," Norton said. "You always look silly."
Six months later—and this time for $750,000 on closed-circuit TV—Norton fought Ali again. This time the judges gave Ali the victory, by a split decision. From those two fights, Norton was catapulted into a title shot in March 1974 against George Foreman in Caracas, but Foreman stopped him in the second round.
The only thing Norton will say about it is, "No excuse. That night George was the better fighter."
What Norton refuses to discuss are the threats made against his life before the fight. He spent the last week in Caracas surrounded by armed guards, even while he slept. And Foreman, for one reason or another, was threatening to call off the fight right up to the final moment.
"Everywhere Ken went he was surrounded by people with machine guns," Biron says. "Until two hours before the fight we didn't know if it was on or off. At that point Kenny was still in his hotel room. I called and he was rushed to the arena. By this time he had come apart mentally. His eyes were glazed. I doubt if he knew his own name. All that confusion, all that uproar had disturbed him greatly. I never should have let him go on."
Just before the Foreman fight, Futch had quit and moved to Philadelphia to train Joe Frazier, who once had paid Norton $400 a week to be his sparring partner. Norton's new trainer was Bill Slayton, a 56-year-old former linebacker in the old Pacific Coast Conference who drove a truck by day and trained young fighters by night. Slayton's major credits were that he had trained Jerry Quarry for his first four pro fights, and he had taken Adolph Pruitt, a good welterweight, to three title bouts.
Slayton is a powerful man with a gentle nature and a delightful low-key sense of humor. He was the perfect choice to train the sometimes moody Norton. If Futch developed Norton's talents, Slayton honed them to a fine edge.
"At first Kenny was afraid I was going to try and change his style," says Slayton. "I told him I wasn't there to change things, just improve on them. After a few weeks I noticed his little idiosyncrasies and I adjusted to them. You know, he's like a little kid sometimes. I'm an Aries, and I'm stubborn, but I'll learn. He's a Leo, and you know about them—they aren't going any way but their own. We have our little spats, but nothing serious. He'll pout for a couple of hours and then he'll get over it. It's important that I get along with him, not him with me. He's the one who should be comfortable. And once you learn his ways, he's a very beautiful guy."
What Slayton did for Norton mostly was shorten his punches, adding accuracy while taking away none of the sting. Norton had been something of a free swinger, his powerful punches delivered in long loops, and when he missed, he missed badly. He is a pressing fighter, always moving forward, crouched and weaving, his great arms folded across his body in a defense favored by Archie Moore. His jab flicks up and out, the gloves picking off punches almost casually.
Norton's best punch is a hook to the body, and his right uppercut, an unusual weapon, is devastating. But in spite of his knockout record—32 in 44 fights—he does not have that one big punch, like, say, a Louis or a Frazier. He punishes with bursts, each blow effective but not a destroyer in itself.
"That's what I have to keep telling him," Slayton says. "After he knocked out Duane Bobick in one round, he came out thinking he was a big puncher. Well, he isn't. If I let him think that, he'll get wild again, and then, oh, Lord, we'll have problems."
Since his loss to Foreman, Norton has had 11 fights, including the controversial loss to Ali in their third match in 1976. Only three other fights, the first of them a knockout of Quarry in the fifth round, were of any significance. It was after the Quarry fight, his 37th as a professional and after he had already fought twice for the title, that Norton finally decided he was going to make boxing his career. At last, he stopped looking for other employment. "That's when I got to thinking, 'Hey, these chumps aren't any better than me,' " he says. "Then I could see that with just a little more work, with a little more effort, I could make it. I had made the movie Mandingo after the Foreman fight, and then I came back and watched the Quarry-Frazier fight films.
"I really got motivated. Quarry didn't show me that much. I had worked with Frazier, and I felt I was on the same level with Joe, and I was still improving. I had started to fight late in my life. Each fight had been a learning experience. I was still learning. That's when I started thinking world champion, and not to just use boxing as a stepping-stone to something else. Now I was motivated into going for the title for the first time in my career. Quarry was just the first step in that direction."
Step 2 was the one-round knockout of Bobick. Step 3 was the 15-round decision over Young. Then, a few months ago, when new heavyweight champion Leon Spinks backed out of a promised fight with Norton in favor of a return match with Ali, the WBC gave Norton its version of the world championship and told him to defend it first against Holmes. That's what he will be doing Friday night.
"I guess it all goes back to what my father told me," says Norton. "A man should never give up on himself. I have a saying now: what the mind can conceive, the body can achieve. In life you have to keep pounding away. Everyone has ups and downs, but you really show what you are made of when you bounce back from defeat. You may slip and fall once in a while, but if you get up and keep walking you'll get to where you want to go."
He doubles up a size 13 fist, and he laughs, breaking the somber mood. "And now," he says, "let me show you what destiny has in store for that bigmouthed Larry Holmes."