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After 35 years, Norton’s epic loss to Holmes still packs ferocious punch

When most people think of the boxer Ken Norton, who lived out his final years in Henderson and died there last week, they probably think of his cross-armed, crab-like style of coming forward that gave some of the greatest heavyweights of his generation — of all time, really — major fits. Or they think of him breaking Muhammad Ali’s jaw at decrepit San Diego Sports Arena in the first installment of their indelible trilogy.

I still can see Ali’s jaw, big and round and swollen, as if there were a tennis ball wedged between his cheek and gum. Ali didn’t look quite so truculent that day.

Do a Google search for Ken Norton, and it turns up a business he used to operate here called Jawbreaker Management, and what else could it be called?

Some people also might remember an aging Ken Norton, sitting on the turnbuckle, all used up, after Gerry Cooney kept blasting him with those thunderous left hooks. Cooney might have been the best of the Great White Hopes, and when he was through pummeling Norton, Ken had this faraway, glazed look about him.

It was unforgettable.

And yet, I have tried to forget it, because that was Ken Norton at his worst, when he was a shot fighter. It is no more fair to remember him for that fight against Cooney than it is to remember Willie Mays for stumbling around center field when he was a shot ballplayer with the Mets.

When I read that Norton had died at age 70, I immediately thought of a farmhouse in Cedar Lake, Ind. This was where I watched Norton fight Larry Holmes. It was June 9, 1978. I remember it being a warm night — which is 50-50 back there, even in early June. There may or may not have been a girl involved.

Norton was the heavyweight champ then, or one of ’em, after the World Boxing Council had tweaked its rules and bylaws. Holmes then was known mostly as Ali’s former sparring partner, the up-and-coming guy out of Pennsylvania. The Easton Assassin. The fight was shown on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” because that was when you still could watch a big fight on free TV.

If they tried to build on the drama by first showing cliff diving from Acapulco, or guys jumping over barrels on ice skates in the Catskills, or Norway, or wherever people enjoy that sort of thing, I don’t recall it.

But do I remember that fight. It was brutal. In the literal sense. And though sometimes the ferocity in boxing will make you wince, ferocity and brutality are what most people want when grown men trade fisticuffs.

It was an excellent fight for seven or eight rounds; then it become a great fight — even Howard Cosell said so — and then the bell sounded for the 15th round. And then it became something more. A passion play or something.

During the first two minutes, Norton got the better of the exchanges that were heavy and rapid-fire and then — right there! — Howard was telling TV viewers how Kenny Norton had knocked Larry Holmes’ mouthpiece right out.

By then, fatigue had set in. And so the grim warriors stood there, toe to toe, and began to whale away. Like Ahab vs. Moby Dick. Only with 10-ounce harpoons on the end of each arm.

First Norton would throw a big shot. Then it was Holmes’ turn. Then Norton would throw another big shot. Then Holmes. On and on like that, for nearly a full minute. It looked like one of those barroom brawls from an old Western.

First Norton. Then Holmes. Norton again. Holmes again. Like Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. The Blue Bomber vs. The Red Rocker. Half the crowd was on its feet, roaring. Then the other half. Until the bell rang.

Marvelous stuff!

The Last Great 15-Round Title Fight, that’s what boxing people called it. And that 15th round? Well, glory was achieved in that 15th round.

Each of the judges marked their scorecards 143-142 — this apparently was before C.J. Ross starting judging fights. Holmes got the split decision. He had survived. He was on his way.

It has been 35 years since Ken Norton and Larry Holmes stood toe to toe in the middle of the ring at the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion and tried to knock each other’s blocks off.

When I heard Norton had died, I wondered if that farmhouse where Chicago turns into industrial wasteland, and then morphs again into rural Indiana, still is standing. And if so, how much weather stripping was required?

As for that girl, she and I would meet again, in 2009, while I was on assignment writing about the 51s playing the Iowa Cubs at Wrigley Field. She had become a school principal and had raised a bunch of her own kids with her husband, who was retiring early from one of the steel mills. He had a gold watch; she had a good life.

But that girl wasn’t a fight fan.

She said she didn’t remember the warm summer night when Ken Norton and Larry Holmes stood toe to toe in the middle of the ring at Caesars Palace and tried to knock each other’s blocks off.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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