Ken Norton, a former heavyweight champion of the world who is best remembered for his trilogy of fights against Muhammad Ali — one in which he broke Ali’s jaw — died Wednesday in a veterans care facility in Henderson from congestive heart failure.
Norton, 70, had been living in Southern Nevada for the past few years.
“He was a classy guy,” said Gene Kilroy, who was Ali’s business manager and became good friends with Norton. “He was a gentleman in the ring and out of the ring.
“Everyone respected Kenny. He was a real warrior.”
Norton, a 1992 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, fought professionally from 1967 to 1981, compiling a 42-7-1 record with 33 knockouts.
He fought seven times in Las Vegas, the first in 1970 when he knocked out Aaron Eastling in the second round at the old Silver Slipper Casino. He didn’t return until 1976, when he beat Pedro Osvaldo Lovell at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Norton, a former Marine who fought many of the top heavyweights of his era, had four fights at Caesars Palace. The most memorable was a bruising, 15-round split-decision loss to Larry Holmes on June 9, 1978, that cost Norton his WBC title.
His final Las Vegas ring appearance came in 1979, when he was knocked out by Earnie Shavers in the first round at the Las Vegas Hilton.
But it was the three fights against Ali that established Norton’s legacy. It began in 1973, when they squared off at the San Diego Sports Arena for the NABF heavyweight title. Norton broke Ali’s jaw early in the fight and went on to win a 12-round split decision — handing Ali only the second loss of his career.
“Kenny was a good, good fighter. He beat a lot of guys,” said Ed Schuyler Jr., who covered many of Norton’s fights for The Associated Press. “He gave Ali fits because Ali let him fight coming forward instead of making him back up.”
Six months after the first fight, Norton and Ali met at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. It was a hard-fought bout, and Ali won a 12-round split decision to reclaim the NABF belt.
That fight paved the way for their final one on Sept. 28, 1976, at Yankee Stadium. The 15-round bout for the WBC and WBA belts was a classic, and many believed Norton had done enough to win. But Ali was awarded a unanimous decision.
“Norton was unorthodox,” Kilroy said. “Instead of jabbing from above like most fighters, he would put his hand down and jab up at Ali.”
In an interview with the Review-Journal in February 2012 at the MGM Grand Garden before a gala celebration for Ali’s 70th birthday, Norton talked about his fights with Ali and the respect he had for him.
“Ali could take a heck of a punch,” Norton said. “He tried to get inside your head. He talked and talked, but I never listened.”
Norton was awarded the WBC heavyweight title in 1978 after Leon Spinks chose to fight Ali instead of Norton, who was the No. 1 contender. But he didn’t keep the belt for long, losing to Holmes at Caesars in what many longtime boxing observers remember as was one of the greatest heavyweight fights ever.
Norton retired from boxing in 1981 after Gerry Cooney stopped him in the first round at Madison Square Garden in New York. He took up acting and made appearances at autograph shows and at big fights.
In 1986, Norton was involved in a near-fatal car crash that left him with a fractured skull, a broken jaw and a broken leg. He recovered, but the incident left him with slurred speech.
In recent years, his health deteriorated after he suffered two strokes. In 2011, he participated in a brain study of former and current boxers conducted by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas.
“He was one of the first retired boxers to participate in the study, and his name encouraged others to get involved,” Dr. Charley Bernick, who oversaw the study, said Wednesday.
In the past year, several former heavyweights — including Spinks, Shavers and Mike Tyson — visited Norton at his home or the hospital. “That would lift his spirits,” Kilroy said.
In a tweet on Wednesday, Tyson said: “Ken Norton was always nice to me even when I was just an amateur fighter. He always treated me like I was somebody. Remarkable man.”
Kilroy added: “I’m sure he’s in heaven now with all the great fighters. I’d like to hear that conversation.”
Funeral arrangements are pending. Norton is survived by his wife, Rose, his sons Brandon, Ken Jr., Keith and Kenejon, and daughter Kanesia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter @stevecarprj.