The first time I remember seeing Ken Norton was in the 1975 blaxploitation film “Mandingo.” He played a slave named Mede, whose owner trained him to be a fighter. He also appeared on TV’s “The A team” with Mr. T and on “Knight Rider” with David Hasselhoff. He was a handsome, rugged hunk of a man. He was also a helluva boxer.
Before he appeared on the big screen, Norton had already shocked the world by defeating Muhamad Ali in 1973, breaking Ali’s jaw in the process. They fought a rematch six months later and Ali scored a split decision win. They were 1-1. It would be three years before they met again and Ali again won the decision. This time it was unanimous. But all the fights were close.
Along the way, Norton scored some impressive wins. He knocked out Duane Bobick in the first round, beat Tex Cobb and Jimmy Young and ended his career in 1981 after losing to Gerry Cooney at Madison Square Garden.
By the time I met Ken, he was retired and making appearances as a former Heavyweight Champion. People loved him and he always looked like he was ready to step into the ring at any moment. He was fit, toned, and well-dressed. He was The Evander Holyfield of his era. Always the perfect body.
He was well into the Hollywood phase of his career when tragedy struck. In 1986 he was in a near-fatal car accident that left him clinging to life. He suffered a fractured skull, broken jaw, and broken leg. He could not remember anything about the incident and had to re-learn basic things like walking, talking, and thinking cognitively.
Crediting his positive attitude and the will to recuperate, he regained most of his old abilities and personality. His speech always remained a bit slurred and his was gait was a little slower. But he made a miraculous recovery. Especially after being paralyzed for a year and a half. Those who didn’t know about the accident, thought he was merely a bit “punchy,” but he usually explained to people what he had gone through.
Ken Norton was always a favorite with the ladies. He dated many beautiful women and according to the rumor mill, the sex scenes in “Drum” (the sequal to “Mandingo”) were authentic. We discussed it once and he didn’t confirm or deny the rumor. He basically smiled and said, “Use your imagination.”
What I loved most was talking to Ken about our kids. He loved being a dad and was proud of all of his children. His son, Ken Norton, jr., was an NFL football player and his son, Keith Norton, was a sportscaster. He also had a son, Kenny, and a daughter Kenisha. His wife, Rose, was with him until the end. His family was always a shining light in his life.
With Joe Frazier and Ken Norton gone, Ali is the remaining legend of a wonderful era in boxing history. I’m not sure when we will ever see excitement like that again in the heavyweight division.