If pressed, Terry Norris, the 23-year-old WBC super welterweight champion, will admit to a lofty goal. "I want to be known as a great champion," he says quietly, his eyes wide. "I want to go down as one of the best ever."
Based on his performance last Saturday night in Palm Springs, Calif.—an inelegant eighth-round knockout of Donald Curry, a faded former champion—Norris has a long way to go. An hour after three thudding rights had deposited Curry in a heap on the canvas, Norris stood in the back of a crowded auditorium at the Radisson Palm Springs Resort. Wearing a purple warmup suit and a black leather baseball cap, Norris smiled, chatted with friends and posed for snapshots with fans. Through it all, he carefully massaged his right hand, which he had bruised during the fight. His body was stiff. His right eyelid was cut. The evening had been far from easy.
"Terry is not yet at his best," said Norris, who's on a first-name basis with himself. "But he's getting there. Terry needs that one great opponent."
Of course, Terry has already had that one great opponent—if about nine years too late. In February at Madison Square Garden, Norris dismantled Sugar Ray Leonard, a man he called his boyhood idol. Norris battered and bruised Leonard, dropping him twice on the way to winning a lopsided 12-round decision. That evening Norris moved with speed and flash, calling to mind the young Leonard. But the 34-year-old Leonard clearly had nothing left, so the fight did little to establish Norris as a star. To many boxing observers, he was merely a fast, reasonably capable youngster who happened to be in the right ring at the right time.
Norris grew up in Lubbock, Texas. His father, Orlin, now his co-trainer, was a semiprofessional heavyweight who did his fighting between shifts in the cotton mills. By the time Terry was nine, he and his older brother, Orlin Jr., who's now a promising heavyweight, were boxing in amateur tournaments across the state. Terry won four Texas Golden Gloves titles, but for a long time his favorite sport was baseball.
In his senior year at Dunbar High in Lubbock, Terry hit better than .400. He received several scholarship offers before an on-field brawl during his senior year left two opposing players KO'd around second base and Norris in trouble. The scholarships evaporated, and with them Norris's love for baseball. His father sent him to Joe Sayatovich's First Fighter Squadron Ranch, where boxers live and train, in Campo, Calif., 60 miles east of San Diego. Orlin Jr. was already there, and Terry settled into boxing for good.
As a pro, Norris, now 28-3, has shown flashes of brilliance. He has also had lapses. In July 1989 he challenged Julian Jackson for the WBA junior middleweight crown. Norris battered Jackson in the first round. In the second, however, Norris got careless, and Jackson knocked him out with one punch. "I've had a taste of losing," says Norris. "I don't ever want to taste it again."
He hasn't. In March 1990 he won the WBC belt with a one-round knockout of John (the Beast) Mugabi. He followed that victory with a 12-round decision last July over Rene Jacquot in Annecy, France. Seven months later he was in the ring with Leonard.
Norris's day-to-day life has not changed much since his defeat of Leonard. Within a week he was back in training in Sayatovich's old yellow barn in the mountains. Terry would return home to San Diego to see his wife, Kelly, and their son, Terry II, now eight months, on Saturday nights. By Sunday night he was back in the mountains. "He is much more serious now about training," says Kelly. "Much more intense."
"I can't see losing my belt," Norris said two days before the Curry bout.
It seemed unlikely that he would in this fight. Curry, 29, a former undisputed welterweight champion, once was touted as being the heir to Leonard as the best boxer, pound-for-pound, in the world. After losing four of his last 12 bouts, dating back to 1986, he was making his last stand. "It's the end of the rope," said Curry, a 4-to-1 underdog, the day before the fight. "I have no more rope."
Norris, who made a reported $750,000 for the third defense of his title—Curry was paid $115,000—seemed to agree. "Donald Curry is not going to be able to put up a good fight," said Norris.
The bout was part of a co-main event (in the other match, WBA welterweight champion Meldrick Taylor won a 12-round split decision over an unknown Venezuelan named Luis Garcia) that drew 4,800 fans to the Radisson's temporary outdoor arena on a cool and breezy desert evening. Curry, who despite his setbacks has remained a fearsome puncher, vowed to take the fight to Norris, and, indeed he came out throwing straight hard punches. Norris, who later said his plan had been to stick and move, was soon flatfooted, forced to bang away inside with short uppercuts and hooks. He seemed a far cry from the slashing, dangerous boxer who thrashed Leonard.
"I wanted to knock him out," said Norris afterward, trying to explain why he had abandoned his fight plan. "I started thinking, I beat Leonard. I beat the legend. Can't nobody touch me."
However, for a while at least, Curry touched him, coming over the top with crisp hooks and counterrights. For seven rounds it was a competitive, rough fight. Norris would later accuse Curry of dirty tactics, including head butts and low blows, but Norris repeatedly hit on breaks and, as we shall see, struck the most questionable punch of all.
Although Curry clearly was beginning to fade, the end came suddenly. In the closing seconds of Round 8, after a left-right combination by Curry seemed to sting the champion, Norris fired back with a series of punches. A straight right hurt Curry. A second right toppled him. Curry was on his knees when Norris, lunging in, caught him flush with another right. Norris had done the same thing in the Leonard fight. Referee Chuck Hasset, who showed little control throughout the bout, ignored the questionable blow and counted Curry out with seven seconds left in the round.
In a postfight press conference, Norris's camp seemed unsure of what the future might bring. "We're looking for a fight," said Sayatovich, who is now his manager. "Whoever is credible."
A few feet away, Kelly, radiant in a long red dress, watched her husband. Yes. she admitted, her husband had changed since the Leonard fight. "Now Terry has a much bigger fear of losing his title," she said. "He talks about it constantly. He doesn't want the public to think his win over Leonard was a fluke."
The Leonard fight was no fluke. Nor was last Saturday's beating of Curry. But neither bout was the one Norris needs. He still needs that one great opponent.