Heavy­weights: When they were kings

Sands of time slowly de­feat­ing great­est gen­er­a­tion of box­ers

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - SPORTS BOXING - By Tim Dahlberg

THEY were young once, and per­haps it’s best to re­mem­ber them that way. Mag­nif­i­cent men on stages equally as mag­nif­i­cent, they were part of the golden age of heavy­weight boxing. With Muhammad Ali as the com­mon thread, they fought in far­away places like Zaire and the Philip­pines, in Yan­kee Sta­dium and in the park­ing lot of a faux Ro­man palace on the Las Vegas Strip.

“On any given night all of us could beat the other,” Ge­orge Fore­man said. “I had Ken Nor­ton’s num­ber and Joe Fra­zier’s num­ber. Ali had my num­ber, and Nor­ton had Ali’s num­ber. No one would give up.”

For the bet­ter part of two decades, no one did. They fought each other and, if that didn’t set­tle things, they fought each other again. Ali in par­tic­u­lar didn’t mind meet­ing a fa­mil­iar foe, with three fights each against Nor­ton and Fra­zier.

For Nor­ton, who died this week at the age of 70, fight­ing Ali didn’t just put him in the up­per ech­e­lon of heavy­weights at a time when heavy­weights reigned supreme. It lit­er­ally put food on his ta­ble for his son, Ken Jr., who would go on to play in the NFL for 13 years and now coaches lineback­ers for the Seat­tle Sea­hawks.

The money was there be­cause Ali made sure it was. He and Fra­zier met in what was truly the Fight of the Cen­tury in 1971, both get­ting $ 2.5 mil­lion purses that were un­heard of at the time.

A few years later, Ali was heavy­weight cham­pion again, though some thought his time had passed. He hadn’t looked that great against Nor­ton in their 1976 fight at Yan­kee Sta­dium, and now he was go­ing to de­fend his ti­tle against Al­fredo Evan­ge­lista, a solid if un­spec­tac­u­lar con­tender most noted as be­ing the best heavy­weight ever to emerge from Uruguay.

“Why do you keep fight­ing?” a ra­dio man asked Ali be­fore the bout.

Ali looked at the man like he had just landed from outer space be­fore ex­plain­ing why he was risk­ing his heavy­weight crown.

“You know what they’re pay­ing me for one night — $ 2.75 mil­lion. This is not Joe Fra­zier or Ken Nor­ton or Jimmy Young,” he said. “I’m get­ting $ 2.75 mil­lion for a tune- up, a warm up, against a no­body.”

There had to be some no­bod­ies, of course, be­cause the heavy­weights who re­ally mat­tered couldn’t keep fight­ing each other all the time. Some­times, though, it seemed like they did, even to those ac­tu­ally do­ing the fight­ing.

“They kept com­ing, and kept com­ing, one af­ter the other,” Fore­man said. “You just couldn’t find an easy tar­get.”

Nor­ton was no easy tar­get — far from it. The for­mer Marine with the sculpted body came out of nowhere to break Ali’s jaw and hand him only his sec­ond de­feat in 1973. The two would fight two more times and Ali would win both, though Nor­ton went to his grave believ­ing that he was robbed in their last fight in 1976 in Yan­kee Sta­dium.

There was no such con­tro­versy two years ear­lier when Nor­ton chal­lenged Fore­man for the heavy­weight ti­tle in, of all places, Cara­cas, Venezuela. The fear­some Fore­man, fight­ing one last fight be­fore he and Ali would meet in the “Rum­ble in the Jun­gle” in Zaire, knocked Fore­man down three times be­fore the fight was mer­ci­fully called to an end in the sec­ond round.

“A lot of peo­ple as­sumed he was afraid of me but he was never afraid of me,” Fore­man said. “He got in the ring and took off his robe and I looked over there and he looks like Her­cules. That wasn’t pretty at all.”

Nor­ton is gone now, never re­ally hav­ing re­cov­ered from blows taken to the head and a car ac­ci­dent in the 1980s that nearly killed him. So is Fra­zier, and other less no­table alums of the great heavy­weight era like Young and Ron Lyle.

Get­ting hit in the head by a 200- pound man can take a toll, though some weath­ered it bet­ter than oth­ers. I was with Leon Spinks last year when he and his wife sat in a small room at the Lou Ruvo Cen­ter for Brain Health in Las Vegas, where he was told his brain was shrink­ing be­cause of the abuse it took in the ring and out.

It was grand, though now it’s not so pretty. Ali him­self is nearly mute and a trem­bling fig­ure th­ese days in Arizona, rav­aged by the Parkinson’s Syn­drome that did what no other op­po­nent could do — si­lence The Great­est.

“He’s liv­ing a more hum­ble life now, but he’s do­ing good,” said Ali’s for­mer busi­ness man­ager Gene Kil­roy, who vis­ited him ear­lier this year on Ali’s 71st birth­day. “But he’s not the Ali he used to be when he would walk down the street and 5,000 peo­ple would fol­low as he yelled ‘ Who’s the great­est of all time?”’

Ali was, and of that there is lit­tle doubt. He cap­ti­vated the world with his mouth out­side the ring, and thrilled them with his work in­side the ropes. Two wins each against Fra­zier and Nor­ton and mighty up­sets of Fore­man and Sonny Lis­ton were more than a ca­reer for any one man.

Like Nor­ton, they were cham­pi­ons too, even if Ali al­ways seemed to reign supreme.

They were all young once, and they were mag­nif­i­cent.

As an­other one passes, we’re all lucky to be able to re­mem­ber them that way.

— The As­so­ci­ated Press

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS AR­CHIVES

Ken Nor­ton stings Muhammad Ali with a left to the head in Septem­ber, 1973.

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