He may say he's semiretired, but 60-year-old former heavyweight
champion Ken Norton stays on the go with acting classes,
appearances at sports memorabilia conventions and the occasional
speaking engagement. And when he isn't making a commercial,
signing autographs for $25 to $50 a pop or recounting his ring
exploits at a fund-raiser, he enjoys horsing around with his six
grandchildren at his home in Dana Point, Calif.--thankful for
every second he spends with them.
In February 1986, while driving home late at night from a
fund-raiser, Norton was nearly killed when he lost control of his
car and crashed on a Santa Monica Freeway on-ramp, suffering a
severely fractured skull. The man whose powerful punch had broken
Muhammad Ali's jaw in winning a 12-round decision in 1973 and who
had starred in the movie Mandingo two years later was left
partially paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak.
"Everything stopped," he says. "My head was split in two."
Norton remained in a Los Angeles hospital for almost three weeks
and then spent six months in a wheelchair at the start of an
arduous rehabilitation. He was in speech therapy for more than a
year. Now he walks slowly, his speech is only slightly slurred,
and he has regained most of his memory.
He vaguely recalls the highly publicized feud in the early 1990s
with his son Ken Jr., an NFL linebacker who won Super Bowls with
the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. Norton Sr. blames
his mental state at the time for the disagreement over his son's
interracial marriage. "I wasn't able to reason," he says. "Things
are great now." After father and son watched Ken Jr.'s
eight-year-old daughter, Sabrina, at a track meet, Ken Sr.
declared, "She was superior running against 11-and 12-year-olds.
It's in the genes."
Norton was a high school football, track and basketball standout
in Jacksonville, Ill., before enlisting in the Marines at 19, in
1963. In the corps he learned to box, and in '67--while living as
a penniless, divorced 24-year-old father--he turned pro. He won
29 of his first 30 fights but didn't strike it rich until after
that first of three memorable bouts with Ali. Norton lost the
rematch by a split decision six months later and the third bout
by unanimous decision in '76, a fight many believed Norton
deserved to win. Norton briefly held the WBC heavyweight title
after it was stripped from Leon Spinks in '77, but he lost his
first title defense to young Larry Holmes. It was Norton's last
significant fight, and he retired in 1981 with a 42-7-1 record.
In his 2000 autobiography, Going the Distance, Norton tells of
putting his life back together after the accident, which ruined
his dreams of film stardom. "God has blessed me," he says. "I
could have ended up a vegetable. Instead I came back, slowly. I
don't expect to become a superstar, but I'm right here, doing my
thing." --Luis Fernando Llosa
Though he had three memorable bouts against Ali, Norton's
toughest fight was his recovery from a near-fatal car crash.