Hall of Fame boxer Kenneth Howard Norton was born on August 9, 1943, in Jacksonville, Illinois. A standout high school athlete, he starred in football, baseball and track. Following high school, Norton made his way to Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, on a football scholarship.
Injuries, however, derailed his college career, and after two seasons, Norton left school and enlisted with the U.S. Marines in 1963. It was during his four-year military stint that Norton took up boxing. Early in his military career, Norton received training at NCTC Corry Station, in Pensacola FL. as a manual Morse intercept operator (MOS 2621). Packing a muscular, 6’2″ frame, Norton quickly acclimated to the ring and compiled an impressive 24-2 record en route to winning three All-Marine Heavyweight Championship titles.
Shortly after leaving the Marines in 1967, Ken Norton turned pro. For the first several years of his career, he assembled a number of victories—winning his first 16 bouts—but not a lot of notoriety.
He caught a huge break in 1973 when Muhammad Ali, who was looking for a way to win back the heavyweight crown from Joe Frazier, selected the relatively unknown Norton as his next opponent.
Stepping into the ring under relative obscurity, Norton promptly made a national name for himself by breaking Ali’s jaw and winning a 12-round split decision at the San Diego Sports Arena. It would be the first of three memorable matches between the two heavyweight contenders.
Six months later, in September 1973 at the Forum in Inglewood, California, Ali got revenge by taking a split decision. At Yankee Stadium in 1976, the pair fought again, with Ali winning a narrow unanimous decision in front of 30,000 rabid boxing fans. For Norton, who was convinced he’d won the last fight, the loss was one he never quite got over. “I was never the same fighter after that,” he later said.
In 1975 at the peak of his boxing career, Norton made his acting debut starring in Dino De Laurentiis blaxploitation film Mandingo, about a pre-Civil War slave purchased to fight other slaves for their masters. After starring in the 1976 sequel Drum Norton went on to bit parts in a dozen other productions.
Norton worked as an actor and TV boxing commentator following his retirement from boxing. He also was a member of the Sports Illustrated Speakers Bureau and started the Ken Norton Management Co., which represented athletes in contract negotiations.
Norton continued making TV, radio and public speaking appearances until suffering injuries in a near-fatal car accident in 1986. It left him with slow and slurred speech.
He appeared along with Ali, Foreman, Frazier and Holmes in a video, Champions Forever, discussing their best times, and in 2000 he published his autobiography, Going the Distance.
In 1978, Norton was named WBC heavyweight champion after new champion Leon Spinks refused to fight Norton, then the No. 1 contender, and accepted a richer purse to fight Ali. But Norton’s time with the belt was short—he lost his first title defense to Larry Holmes later that year.
Norton’s final bout came in 1981, against Gerry Cooney, and ended with Norton losing by technical knockout. Overall, Norton finished with a record of 42-7-1 with 33 knockouts. In 1992, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York.
Norton died at a care facility in Las Vegas on September 18, 2013. He was 70 years old and had suffered a series of strokes in later life. Across the boxing world tributes were paid, with George Foreman calling him “the fairest of them all” and Larry Holmes saying that he “will be incredibly missed in the boxing world and by many”.