Reclining in this dressing room an hour before his title defense against Troy Waters last Saturday at the San Diego Sports Arena, WBC super welterweight champion Terry Norris wore the benign look of a man at peace with his world. He had devoured his customary prefight plate of pasta. He had played Nintendo. His hair was sculpted to spell out SAN DIEGO, his adopted and now beloved hometown. His wife, Kelly, had stopped by to wish him luck. And so had his brother, Orlin Norris Jr. Terry had signed autographs. He was in the protective custody of a phalanx of handlers and advisers, among them his father and co-trainer, Orlin Sr. And Waters, the challenger from Sydney, Australia, figured to be no obstacle for this latest claimant to best-fighter-in-the-world-pound-for-pound honors.
"Terry is so far ahead of other fighters," his manager, Joe Sayatovich, had said in his presence that afternoon, "that he's the Michael Jordan of boxing." Except that no one has yet called Jordan "the Terry Norris of basketball." And, in reality, the whole week had been pretty much of a bummer for the 26-year-old Norris. In his 38-fight career he has been as uncontentious outside the ring as he has been ruthless in it. But early in the week Norris said that he and "pound-for-pound" rival Julio Cèsar Chàvez had nearly come to blows at a recent party and that Norris had, in fact, pushed the WBC super lightweight champion in the face after Chàvez had cursed him in Spanish.
Then, at a prefight press conference last Thursday, Norris found himself being belittled by onetime stablemate and former WBC super welterweight champ Lupe Aquino, and by Archie Moore's son Billy, who would work in Waters's corner. The unranked Aquino, making a comeback after serving nearly four years in prison for vehicular manslaughter, accused Norris of ducking him. Billy Moore suggested that the champ was also ducking a local journeyman, Gilbert Baptist. This was more than the normally placid Norris could bear, and he verbally lashed out at both of his tormentors.
"That kind of talk usually doesn't bother me," Norris said later, "but I don't believe in it, and I don't usually do it. That day I just reached the boiling point."
A story in The San Diego Union-Tribune on the day of the fight intimating that Terry and brother Orlin, a cruiserweight contender, were no longer close didn't add to Terry's sense of well-being, either. Orlin and Terry are indeed still close, and the two conspicuously embraced to demonstrate that all was well.
Then, as Terry watched the preliminary bouts on TV in his dressing room, he saw Aquino dancing about the ring after his second-round KO of a nonentity and holding aloft Norris*s photograph. Suddenly, Aquino ripped the picture to shreds and hopped on the pieces. Norris winced. "If there is anything that bothers Terry," says his physician, Gerald Farrow, "it's disrespect." And Norris had had that in spades all week. Pity poor Waters.
Norris, in fact, waded right into the angular (5'11", 152 pounds) Aussie in Round 1, bombarding him with jabs, hooks and demoralizing uppereuts. In no time, Waters was on his way down from a right behind the ear. As Waters slumped to the canvas, Norris added an extralegal shot that cost him a point. But the challenger was not down to stay, and he fought back gamely and survived the round.
The champion had had such an easy time of it in the opening round that he came out for Round 2 looking for a quick kill. Instead, midway through the round, as Norris bore in, his hands dangerously low. Waters nailed him with a straight right to the temple, and for the first time since Julian Jackson knocked him out on July 30. 1989. Norris went down. In 13 consecutive victories since the Jackson loss, Norris had scarcely been extended. Now he was hurt. It was that kind of week.
Norris has often said that the Jackson loss may have been the best thing that ever happened to him. He learned from it that staying in peak condition was vital. Conditioning paid off on Saturday night. for Norris got to his feet and returned to the attack, and though Waters sneaked home another solid right hand near the hell, the outcome seemed no longer in doubt.
A powerful right dropped Waters in the third round. Again he survived, but by now he was bleeding profusely from deep cuts over his right eye and under his left. His corner refused to allow Waters to come out for the fourth round, with Moore himself waving his hands in surrender. But Norris did come out, rushing to the ropes to exchange insults with Aquino at ringside.
Twenty-four stitches were required to sew Waters's face back together, but he had made an exciting fight of it. "I was one punch away from a world championship," he said afterward, not altogether accurately.
Morris, ordinarily charitable to beaten foes, was embarrassed by the knockdown, and at the postfight press conference he told Waters's manager. Bruce Kennedy, "I destroyed your boy tonight. He's so cut up he may never fight again."
Norris's own ability to get off the floor and win was elaborately praised. "It is the mark of a champion," said Sayatovich. "Think of how many times Sugar Ray Leonard got up from a knockdown to comeback like that."
Don King, the fight's promoter, compared Norris favorably with John Paul Jones, although his history was a bit skewed. According to King, "When John Paul Jones was on the Serapis [that was the British frigate; Jones was on the Bonhomme Richard] and Cornwallis [who was an army general and nowhere near the action] asked him to surrender, old John Paul just said, 'Sir, I have not yet begun to fight.' That was Terry Norris tonight."
Actually, Norris has just begun to fight for King, having signed a four-bout deal that began with the Waters fight and may culminate in a match late this fall with the winner of a middleweight title bout between champion Reggie Johnson and Julian Jackson. Jackson, who was knocked out by current WBC middleweight title-holder Gerald McLellan last month, was an interested spectator at the Waters fight. Soft-spoken and bespectacled, he congratulated both boxers, sympathizing with Waters because, he said, "in my fight with McLellan I, too, couldn't see because of cuts, and I was in with a powerful puncher." Norris would like nothing more than to avenge his loss of four years ago, but whatever the outcome in August, a middleweight title is what he and Sayatovich are fervently pursuing.
"We'll take any of the top four super welters in between," says Sayatovich, his spiky gray beard bristling. "But we want only titleholders among the middles. Terry fights 160-pound guys all the time in the gym and beats them. He wouldn't really have to go up much from 154 pounds, anyway. It all depends on what you put in your mouth. We can train him down to 148 or 149, as we did for Meldrick Taylor [a fourth-round knockout for Norris on May 9, 1992], or up to 155 or more, depending on how much he eats. You take a guy like James Toney [the IBF super middleweight champion]. He's really a middleweight fighting at 168. He'd be an excellent fight for Terry. So would Roy Jones, a legitimate middle."
Since he terminated Ray Leonard's career—apologizing after the Feb. 9, 1991, fight for having to be the one to do it—and KO'd Taylor, Norris has not established himself as the box-office star he deserves to be. His obscure division is part of the problem—thus the planned move up to middleweight. And Sayatovich firmly believes that King may be the solution. "Whatever problems others have had with him are not ours," he says. The Waters fight drew an announced crowd of 11,646, but King admits that he papered the house, doling out freebies lo more than 4,000 local naval personnel.
The biggest payday for Norris would be with that other King bauble, Chavez, who will fight Pernell Whitaker for the WBC welterweight title on Sept. 10. Norris would have to drop some pounds for that one, or Chàvez would have to put on some, but Sayatovich docs not rule out the possibility of this dream match. It won't be soon, though. "I think what will happen," says Sayatovich, "is that Don King will parallel the two of them for a while, and then when Chàvez is ready for one last blowout, we'll have the fight. And that will be some payday."
Norris is in no rush. "I'm not going to wait for Chàvez," he says, "and he's not going to wait for me. I'm just going to keep moving on."
And, presumably, up.