Friday, August 19, 2011

Random Classics - Larry Holmes vs. Ken Norton

Frequency of enjoyable skirmishes aside, the definition of a good fight has been the same in every era of boxing:

Action - the more two-way and sustained, the better.

And boxing fans usually have a list of fights - whether they've actually scrawled it out or not - to show folks who exclaim things like "Boxing is fixed!" and "Boxing is boring!"...and the chronically untrue assertion made by fights fans that have been around for a while, "There just aren't any good fights anymore!"

In this era, we point to fights like Corrales vs. Castillo I, Vazquez vs. Marquez (pick one), or Ward vs. Gatti I maybe, to dispel such claims. 

Holmes vs. Norton would've been one of the go-to fights for the die-hards of the late 70's had they needed it.

The early 70's saw some of the best heavyweight fighters and matchups in the history of the division, but the action slowed considerably as the decade came to a close. Aside from a very nice burst of activity in the early and mid-90's with guys like Holyfield, Bowe, Tyson and Lewis, it's been mostly drab ever since. 

In the 1970's, a heavyweight fight won the "Fight of the Year" honors 7 out of 10 years. 

Compare that to the 1980's, where a heavyweight fight never took home that trophy.

It's difficult to follow greatness, but especially so when today's heavyweight top 20 lineup looks more like an amateur bowling team than a collection of gladiators.


Post-retirement, Roger Maris reportedly once said of his later career, "It would have been a helluva lot more fun if I had not hit those sixty-one home runs." 

Had Maris not broken the beloved Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1961, he may have just gone down as a great ballplayer. No death threats, curses, hexes or constant scrutiny for the remainder of his career - just baseball. 

Almost exactly ten years earlier, in October of 1951, heavyweight great Rocky Marciano wept in the dressing room of former heavyweight champion and American hero Joe Louis after ending Louis' career with a huge right hand, and lending a sense of legitimacy to his stint. 

Even after surpassing their predecessors in one way or another, both Marciano and Maris knew the frustration of competing in the shadow of someone considered greater and more widely accepted. 

Throughout his career, Larry Holmes would also feel the sting, fighting in the wake of the international phenomenon known as Muhammad Ali. 

The fourth oldest of twelve children in a Cuthbert, Georgia sharecropping family, Holmes grew in poverty as a young child, living next to train tracks in a stilted shack with no plumbing. 

At the age of 6, his family loaded up their Chevy and headed to Easton, Pennsylvania, where they had hoped to find better work at the steel and paper mills or sewing factories.

The industrial city was recovering from a hurricane at the time, however, and the mass of poor black folks that poured into the city found work scarce. To boot, Larry's father, John Henry, left the family not long after carving somewhat of a niche there - he met another woman in Connecticut while job hunting and moved near where she lived. 

Larry would go and work with his father in Connecticut every so often, helping him do yard work in the evenings. 

Back in South Easton, Larry's mother Flossie managed to rear the entire clan on her own in the "projects," enlisting the help of welfare and feeding her children with government food. 

As the children grew old enough to work in factories around Easton, they contributed to the household what little money they could - even at the expense of Larry, who would have the money he made shining shoes in nearby Phillipsburg, New Jersey stolen by his older siblings. 

Holmes' lack of education in Cuthbert  landed him in "special education" classes at Taylor Elementary which, according to Larry, amounted to little more than being babysat. 

He was athletic from the get-go, however, excelling in wrestling while attending elementary school, and even competing for St. Anthony's Youth Center; Larry also enjoyed - and was good at - playing basketball and football. 

Boxing didn't interest Larry much until the age of 10, when he started participatng in PAL exhibitions in bars, back-rooms and halls that weren't anything more than a puppet show for grown folks who wanted to see some kids smack away at each other. The kids didn't seem to mind the free hot dogs and bar food they got after the fights though - all of which were always declared draws.

He still played other sports, and his dedication to participating at St. Anthony's lead him to being given the privilege of turning off the lights and locking up at night when he was 14-years old. One night in particular, a number of high school seniors were playing basketball, not wanting to leave. When Larry asked them to leave, he was beaten up by one of the older boys before managing to still turn the lights off and lock the doors. 

Holmes then dropped out of school to help his family, which landed him in what was basically "Juvenile Hall" for 13 days. Upon being released and sent to a hearing, Larry decided to quit school for good and work for $1 an hour at a place called Jet Car Wash, run by John DiVietro. The car wash owner recalled that other kids often picked fights with the hard working Larry, mocking his boxing style and "chicken legs." 

Shortly thereafter, Larry began fighting on the streets. He would later say:

"I used to knock out a guy every weekend...There was always somebody to challenge you. I had streaks. Once I went 40 straight weekends, knocking out some guy every one of them. That's when I used to think about being a fighter. But growing up, I didn't have time. I always worked." - Sports Illustrated, 1978

Work he did - as a sandblaster, dump truck driver, quarry hauler and making artillery shells, among other stuff he wasn't keen on. 

At 19, Holmes decided he'd had enough of working difficult jobs for little pay and contacted former welterweight pro Earnee Butler, who happened to be running a record store and shoeshine joint in Easton at the time, challenging him to a sparring match. 

Upon realizing the difference between running game on the streets and stepping into a ring, Larry asked Butler to train him. 

Not boxing seriously at first, Larry continued to focus on work, but learned baseline fundamentals from Butler in a little under a year and fought local amateurs from around the Easton area. 

A little extracurricular activity almost derailed Holmes' career though, as he sold marijuana and began smoking his own stash, eventually moving on to hashish. But a bad trip bounced him back to reality, where he swore off drugs and decided to train outside of Easton. 

One day Larry accompanied Butler and the other kids he trained at the time to an amateur tournament in New York, where Larry was the only one not to back out, winning his fight in a bigger city and against better opposition. 

Even as Holmes' amateur career took off, he worked at the Ingersoll-Rand factory in Phillipsburg for $125 a week, training at night in New York and occasionally Philadelphia, taking days off to fight in amateur tournaments when he could and planning to try out for the 1972 Olympic team. 

All the while, Earnee Butler criticized his tendency to keep his hands low, and Larry was stopped by Duane Bobick in the Olympic Trials. He eventually wound up with an amateur record of 19-3.

Holmes turned pro with Butler in his corner, racking up a few easy wins at the Catholic Youth Center in Scranton, PA, and making a little over $300 for his first couple of bouts. 

After a handful of local fights, his name making its way into The Express-Times fairly often, Holmes was hired on by Joe Frazier as a sparring partner for his rematch with Muhammad Ali. 

According to Holmes, he did a bit too well in sparring against Joe and was given his pink slip. But according to Joe, Eddie Futch and other gymrats of the North Philly sweat station, Frazier injured Larry's rib, thus his work was no longer needed.

Whatever the reason, Larry was recruited as a sparring partner by Ali later in 1974, and "The Greatest" seemed to take a liking to Holmes. 

After Don King took over Ali's training camp, however, Earnee Butler and Holmes split, and King essentially took over his career and hooked him up with trainer Richie Giachetti. 

In the meantime, Larry kept winning, and often in ways that led to comparisons to Ali's style and in-ring swagger. But according to Don King, Larry's personality needed work - as he put it, "Larry couldn't draw flies to a dump." 

In 1975, King attempted to get a 10-0 Holmes more exposure by putting him on the undercards of Ali-Wepner and Ali-Lyle, where he kayo'd Charley Green and Ernie Smith, respectively. 

On the first of October the same year, Holmes exacted a little bit of revenge on Duane Bobick by stopping his younger brother Rodney in six rounds on the undercard of Ali-Frazier III, "The Thrilla in Manila."

Larry did a short stint as sparring partner for Earnie Shavers after leaving Ali's camp, and talks of a Foreman-Holmes matchup were rumored when Holmes stopped Joe Gholston five days after the epic slugfest that was Foreman-Lyle. The bout never materialized though, as Foreman moved on to a more lucrative rematch with Joe Frazier.

"The Easton Assassin" then TKO'd Fred Askew while headlining a small card in Maryland and subsequently decisioned Philly scrapper Roy "Tiger" Williams in impressive fashion on the undercard of Ali vs. Jimmy Young. 

Don King, desperate to create new stars in the wake of losing Ali as a promotional client and waning U.S. boxing appeal, attempted to hold what he called the "U.S. Tournament" - a long-term, multi-weight box-off between some 60 American fighters to be held on ABC. 

Holmes defeated Tom Prater aboard the USS Lexington in Pensacola, Florida to start off the tournament in January, 1977. 

Less than a month later, the tournament began showing signs of falling apart, as the late Scott LeDoux lost a shady and controversial decision to unknown Texas fighter Johnny Boudreaux on ABC, prompting the network to suspend fights. 

As a Foreman-Holmes fight was again found difficult to make from a promotional aspect (both fighters were handled by King), Holmes stopped unheralded Horace Robinson on the undercard of Jimmy Young vs. Foreman - a bout to determine a mandatory challenger for Ali. 

The Young-Foreman fight wound up being Ring Magazine's Fight of the Year, but Foreman had retired following the loss that saw him almost falling over from exhaustion at the end. 

And like that, King began steering Holmes and Norton toward each other as Larry fought on the undercards of Norton-Zanon and Norton-Young, a few months after Ken brutally stopped Larry's amateur conquerer Duane Bobick inside of a round. 

The WBC's slimy emperor, Jose Sulaiman, chose to strip Leon Spinks of the title he snatched from a faded Ali a mere month after the fight, and gifted it to the mandatory challenger Norton - a Don King Productions fighter. 

With the deft trickery, Shavers vs. Holmes was made as a WBC Eliminator for Norton's newly-inherited belt. Earnie was a heavy favorite, and Don King had apparently already gifted Shavers $25,000 towards the expected Norton-Shavers bout. 

Instead, Holmes jabbed Shavers for much of the fight, even out-fighting him in exchanges in a number of rounds, allowing Shavers to bull forward with his head down to rip body shots. But generally Holmes stayed away from (or rolled with) Earnie's vaunted power in winning a wide decision, although he did have Shavers reeling at the end of the bout.

A win over the highly experienced, yet probably faded Shavers set the stage for Larry's first tile shot against Ken Norton. 


Born Kenneth Howard Florence, Norton was by his own account not so much a trouble-maker as a kid, but he described himself as "rambunctious." 

And a spoiled brat. 

Norton's step-father, John Edward Norton, was a man forged from the harsh climate of The Great Depression. When Ken was young, his dad hauled coal in the morning, cleaned up at a local Jacksonville, Illinois barbershop during the afternoon, and drove a fire truck in the evening, all to make sure his family never knew the meaning of "poor."

An only child, Kenny had a happy and fulfilling childhood - essentially the exact opposite of Larry Holmes. 

John Edward eventually had a leg amputated after an accident and went to work as a police dispatcher for the city, and his mother was an activities director at a local hospital. 

Kenny was somewhat of a thrill-seeker as a youngster, racing trains on his bike, hitching rides on garbage trucks, and other such mischief. 

He finally tried out sports at a the age of 9, competing in a local Junior Olympics competition at his school, and his neck was heavy with blue ribbons by the end of the day. 

That day seemed to plant a seed of interest in athletics for Norton, and he continued to play just about any sport he could. By 9th grade, he was the size of a full-grown man, with a growing ego to boot. 

Norton was brought back down to reality by a hard wallop from his step-dad on the front lawn, after getting mouthy during dinner and challenging him to have a go. 

According to Norton's longtime friend, mentor and former high school coach, Al Rosenberger, Ken was an exceptional athlete who impressed in basketball, football, baseball and track and field. In fact, he was co-captain of an undefeated state champion football time in his senior year, as a running back and defensive end.   

But at over 6-foot tall, Kenny loved the individual competition of track-and-field, and often competed in as many as eight events. 

One particular day in Spring of 1961 that saw Norton wreck shop in 6 of 8 events and win a meet for his school created what is still known as "The Norton Rule," which limits the amount of events an athlete can compete in to 4. 

An incident involving his high school sweetheart and her new beau hitting Norton with their car left him with a fractured collar bone - an injury that would come back to haunt him later. 

He received scholarship offers from a number of high profiled schools, but chose to stay close to home and attend Northeast Missouri State. 

On his own for the first time, it was as if Norton were a bull and the NMS campus were the china shop; he dated numerous girls, partied, did only fair on the football team and slacked on school work before briefly getting his act together to finish out his freshman year. 

During his sophomore year though, frustration with declining football performances and his nagging collar bone issue led to him walking off the field and dropping out of school.

Stagnating back in Jacksonville after dropping out, his step-father gave him an ultimatum after becoming fed up with Kenny's increasing laziness: get a job, or get out. 

Instead of getting a job, Kenny joined the marines. 

In the Corps, Norton became more self-reliant but remained a spoiled brat. 

Norton learned the only way to get out of 5am wake-ups was to box or play football. As he was already an accomplished football player, Norton walked on to the team to get better meals and sleep in. But a hissy fit once again saw him walk off the field...and right into the marine boxing gym. 

One of his friends, Art Redden, introduced him to coach Pappy Dawson, who attempted to teach Norton the basics before being killed in a freak accident. 

Redden helped Kenny refine technique over the course of 3 months. In Norton's first year as an amateur, he went 10-1. Eventually his record settled at 24-2 with 19 KO's, a three-time All Marine heavyweight champion, as well as the winner of Pan Am Games Trials and AAU Nationals in San Diego in 1967. 

After being discharged from the marines, Ken hooked up with Art Rivkin, future co-owner of the San Diego Padres, who encouraged him to turn professional. 

After turning pro in November of 1967 with a knockout over national Golden Gloves champion Grady Brazell, he moved from San Diego to Watts, Los Angeles in order to train at the Hoover Street Gym, despite fighting a number times in San Diego. He would go through a few trainers as well, before settling on the legendary Eddie Futch after only three fights. 

There Norton would have the chance to spar with Muhammad Ali when he was banned from fighting in the U.S., reportedly getting the better of their session. 

Coming up against a the usual opponents who were there to make him look good and help him learn, Norton went 16-0 before being decked in 8 rounds by lanky Venezuelan Jose Luis Garcia in July, 1970. 

The loss motivated Norton and Futch to work harder and perfect his quirky style. 

Norton ran his record to 27-1 and 22 KO's, working his way to a #7 ranking in Ring Magazine when he knocked out Henry Clark on the undercard of Ali vs. Bob Foster in November, 1972, setting up an Ali-Norton meeting.

A tune-up in San Diego in December helped keep Norton's name in the local press leading to the memorable March showdown with Ali at the San Diego Sports Arena. 

The champion Ali appeared sluggish and unable to deal with Norton's style all evening, not helped in the least by fighting with a broken jaw from round 1 on. With the split decision win, Norton's name slingshotted to the headlines and he earned a $50,000 payday.

Decisioning "The Greatest" meant an immediate rematch was in order that September, and this time Ali took a thin decision most felt he didn't deserve despite having a big final round. Shortly after the fight, Ali said he planned on retiring. 

By this time, Norton was essentially connected to Don King via fight options attached to deals made in order to land fights with Ali. 

Ken was then matched with the only guy to beat the "other" guy who beat Ali: George Foreman. 

Foreman crushed Norton in under two rounds in March of 1974, cementing his claim to the heavyweight throne. 

King fronted over $1 million to make Foreman-Norton II, but the opportunity to put together a bout between Foreman and Ali in Zaire ultimately killed that idea. 

Instead King placated Norton by paying him well to headline smaller cards, on which Norton sustained little damage and usually won impressively. The lone exception was a scrap with Jerry Quarry at Madison Square Garden in March, 1975, where Norton stopped the unbelievably tough (if not fairly spent) Quarry in 5 rounds. 

Outside the ring, Norton starred in the exploitation flick Mandingo, which boosted his profile markedly. 

Ken Norton signed a contract with Bob Arum's Top Rank prior to the third Ali fight in September, 1976, citing King's inability to get the fight made. King filed an injunction to keep the fight from happening and sued Norton, but the fight moved forward anyways. 

Ali again won a close, unpopular decision, seemingly never being able to solve the Futch-inspired style of Norton. The deal with Top Rank proved to be an intelligent choice, however, as Norton was guaranteed $1.1 million for the bout, and Ali $6 million - both sums King seemed unwilling or unable to offer at the time. 

Following an eight-month break, Norton smooshed 38-0 former Olympian Duane Bobick in less than a round. 

Norton next headlined a Don King-promoted card at Caesar's Palace in Vegas that also featured contenders Jimmy Young and Larry Holmes on the undercard, stopping Lorenzo Zanon in 5 and setting up a WBC Eliminator with spotty trickster Jimmy Young in November, 1977.

Norton took a close, complained-about decision in an awkward fight, and Young was gracious in defeat, but still felt he'd clearly done enough to win the bout. 

Again Larry Holmes fought on the undercard at Caesar's, stopping fringe contender Ibar Arrington in the 10th round, after being taunted and laughed at by Arrington for most of the night, sending him on a collision course towards Norton. 


Following the Norton-Young card, the World Boxing Council stripped champion Leon Spinks of their belt and handed it to Norton. Literally. 

Don King may or may not have had a hand in manipulating WBC honcho Jose Sulaiman, with whom he reportedly had something of a friendship at the time. That may not have been as apparent to many at the time though, as the heavyweight picture had been convoluted and confusing since at least 1967, when Ali's title was taken away for refusing to be drafted by the U.S. Army. 

Both King and Arum attempted to corner the heavyweight market, signing potential champions to multi-fight deals and getting as many options on their future fights as they could. 

Sulaiman basically served as King's rankings enforcer, however.  

The contrast in character and style between Holmes and Norton was an interesting one, and the bout was at worst moderately-anticipated. 

Holmes came to resent Norton's "middle class" upbringing and felt Ken looked down his nose at him, while Norton seemed to be nearing the end of his career and un-focused according to Futch, though the trainer frequently made similar claims. 

Regardless, Norton entered the bout as a 7-5 favorite, the back and forth jawing during training sessions making their way to the press weekly. 

Holmes reportedly suffered an injured left bicep in sparring a few days before the bout, but hid it from the media, viewing the fight as a way to prove he belonged among the elite, name fighters of the division. 

An even fight after a thrilling 14 rounds, Holmes believed himself to be ahead and opened the riveting 15th round with staying on his toes in mind. Instead, Norton winged hooks at Holmes, forcing him to stand his ground and fight it out, making for one of the best rounds in boxing history - a round that sealed the deal for the winner and etched the fight's name on the tablet of all-time great bouts to be forever respected.




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