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  • Steve Hunt

50 Years Ago Today - George Foreman TKO2 Ken Norton

Silence was called for at the weigh-in as Dr Franklin Zabala conducted the obligatory pre-fight health checks. With his stethoscope to George Foreman’s chest, he was struggling to detect signs of life. Those in the crowd would not have been surprised. Foreman was a cold-blooded monster. He had transformed from the smiling flag waver of the 1968 Olympics into a merciless killer in the ring, with brutalizing power. His readiness to defend his title didn’t seem dependant on the presence of a beating heart. Don’t waste your time, Doc.

This was March 1974. The heavyweight carnival had rocked up in oil-rich Venezuela for Foreman’s second defence of the world heavyweight title against Ken Norton. It was the beginning of the first era of “sportswashing”; before it even had a name. Opulence and poverty appearing to be a pre-requisite.  The deal to bring the fight to Caracas was conducted with a regime who promised a tax-free bonanza. By fight time, there was a different head honcho, with conflicting views on the payment of taxes. The “take the money and run” ethos of the 1970s heavyweight boxing business was going to get complicated for all concerned before the show left town.

Foreman already had plenty of legal complications since becoming champion. He was going through a costly divorce and even in fight week was involved in court proceedings in both Las Vegas and San Francisco for other legal disputes. He was not the first, and would not be the last, to find the ring a sanctuary; a place he felt in control.

He had destroyed Joe Frazier in two rounds to win the title back in January 1973 and defended the title in September with a first round knockout of Jose Roman in Tokyo. That brought his record to 39-0 with 36 knockouts. His inactivity was thought unlikely to count against him as most felt he was too big and too powerful for Norton. Foreman’s public pronouncements suggested supreme confidence, while he was respectful of his challenger.  

“People who say I don’t take Norton seriously are crazy. He’s a good fighter. But he can’t think he can beat me, can he?”

Ken Norton’s 1973 had been very different. He’d fought 24 rounds with Muhammad Ali, winning the first fight on points in March and losing a close decision in September.  If that fight served as an eliminator for the title, Foreman had chosen to face the loser. The Ali fights had changed Norton’s life. Prior to the first Ali fight his highest purse had been $7,500. Now he owned a home in Carson and rented a place in Malibu. He drove a silver Lincoln convertible or could choose between three motorbikes that he owned. He wore an extravagant diamond and platinum ring that he designed himself and called a “volcano ring”. It was a gift to himself after the Ali victory.

The contrast between champion and challenger was stark. Foreman was from a Houston ghetto, while Norton grew up in the relative middle-class environment of Jacksonville. As a young man, Foreman’s options may have felt limited, while Norton was a star athlete in college who joined the marines where he took up boxing. He served four years in the mid-60s before embarking on a professional career in the ring. A four-man management team of San Diego businessmen paid Norton a weekly wage of $100 as he took his first steps. For his shot at the title, he was on a guaranteed purse of $200,000, plus 20 per cent of the gate and other revenue.

Norton had been in Jamaica when Foreman ripped the title from Frazier. He and Frazier had shared a trainer in Eddie Futch. Norton was there originally to give Frazier sparring. The sparring sessions were ended when it was realised that Norton had become more than what Joe needed to be dealing with. Norton was left to relax and enjoy the delights of the Caribbean island, while Frazier endured a nightmare.

Subsequently, Norton had switched trainers from Futch to Bill Slayton. He and Futch were still close, but too much of Futch’s time was taken up with his responsibility with Frazier. It was now Slayton’s job to prepare Norton to face the relentless pressure that Foreman would inevitably bring. Norton, now 30-2 with 23 knockouts, felt that his training experiences with Joe had been valuable lessons.

“Joe would always come at you. Survive or die, buddy. You learn.”

It was no secret what tactics that Foreman would be using, but how would Norton go about trying to beat the fearsome champion?

“I expect to box him, but if there’s an early opening, I’ll try to take advantage of it. I’m not going to stand there and slug, but if he gets off balance, or I see something that he’s doing wrong, I’ll step in and exploit it. This is for the title. I have to take chances. I can’t be too conservative. He has one basic style he relies on. Brute strength. I’m more agile, faster, and smarter as far as boxing skill is concerned. You don’t have to run to beat Foreman. I think I can get inside. Anybody over 200lbs has the potential to knock another man out.”

“Getting hit is an occupational hazard. It’s gonna happen. My plan is to cut it down as much as possible.”

Having sparred over 200 rounds, with five days to go Slayton decided to put the brakes on Norton’s training. It was time to ease off. That suited the challenger, who had ideas to amuse himself in the time remaining before fight night.

“A little roadwork, sleep, rest, walk around the pool, flirt a little. Work a little on my Spanish. With all these senoritas here, you got to learn quick.”

While Norton had praise for Foreman the fighter, he was critical of Foreman the champion.

“He’s put the belt in the closet. He’s not doing the things in public the heavyweight champion should do. The world heavyweight champion should be a positive person, the most important figure in sports.”

Positivity was an important theme for Norton. An avid reader of motivational literature, he always carried a copy of a book entitled, The Philosophy Of Success. Then there was a poem that he read over and over to himself. The last two lines of the poem read, “The man who wins, is the man who thinks he can.”

But what happens when other man thinks he can too?

Plenty of people were on hand to offer opinions as to the outcome of the fight, some more useful than others. Joe Louis was in town. A notoriously bad tipster, the old Bomber was hedging his bets, telling one reporter he was backing Norton to win and the selecting Foreman when asked by another. The consensus opinion was that to have any chance, Norton would have to take Foreman into the later rounds. That was the view held by Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee.

“I think Foreman will win because I don’t think Norton has the side-to-side movement you need to stay out of the danger area. But if the fight goes over six rounds, I think Norton will win by knockout. I think the other guy will blow up.”

Knowing what you should do and being able to execute it are two separate things, as Foreman’s most recent opponent, Jose Roman could attest to.

“There is only one way to fight George Foreman. Stay away. I’ve told Kenny that. I told him he has to stay away from Foreman for four or five rounds. I tell Kenny, little by little, you’ll have him. Hell, I was told the same thing myself, but it didn’t sink in.”

James J. Woody was a journeyman heavyweight who had shared the ring with both champion and challenger. He’d been stopped in three rounds by Foreman and lost twice to Norton, once on points over ten rounds and then by a seventh-round stoppage. His take would not be pleasant reading for fans of the challenger.

On Norton. “He’s strong; don’t forget that. Norton can hit. But, with some luck, with more aggression, I could have beaten him. But not easy. He’s real good.”

On Foreman. “He’s big. You let him in… He’s got you… He’ll club you to death.”

Speaking of beating people to death, Don King was still only two years from having been released from prison, but he was already becoming a major player in boxing. He had got himself attached to the company Video Techniques, run by Hank Schwartz, and was already demonstrating the strong anti-Bob Arum feeling that was to endure for several decades. Arum had been heavily involved with Ali’s career in recent years. Now King was moving in and was critical of his rival’s way of doing business.

“Arum steps on little people like bugs”.

Ironic coming from a man who had literally stomped a man to death.

The press was still getting to know King. As a result, he was allowed to tell his version of events without challenge. This was how he explained his recent prison time for the killing of Sam Garrett.

“He was a lay-off man for me. He double-crossed me, ran off with some dough. I was willing to overlook it, but he picked a fight. I hit him. His head hit the sidewalk. He expired.”

A criminal record was rarely an obstacle to career advancement in professional boxing and King was already proving his ability to make things happen. Just days before the Foreman-Norton clash, Hank Schwartz announced that Foreman would be defending the title against Ali in Zaire in September. He was full of praise for King’s role in brokering the deal where each fighter would be getting paid $5m.

“He is the only person I know who could interface with the Foreman and Ali camps at the same time. His effectiveness was amazing.”

Foreman was on a guaranteed $700,000, plus a 40 per cent cut of the various revenue streams. There would be 200 closed circuit screenings across the US. What wouldn’t help closed circuit sales would be any doubt that the fight wouldn’t go ahead, but that is what they got.

A dispute had been brewing about the choice of officials for the fight. By fight day it had not been resolved and was threatening to throw the fight into jeopardy. Foreman’s manager, Dick Sadler, was not happy with the prospect of three Venezuelan officials and was demanding a referee whose first language was English. Publicly, Foreman claimed to care a lot less than his manager did.

“No refs or judges ever done me no favours. I got my refs and judges (holding up his fists). God gave me them and I brought them from home. They help me make all my own decisions.”

Around lunchtime on fight day, Foreman was seen being taken to hospital for an x-ray on a knee injury. As late as 3pm, Foreman’s physician was claiming the fight was still in doubt due to the injury. No one can be around professional boxing for any length of time without becoming deeply sceptical. Was the injury legitimate or was Foreman’s manager using it as leverage to get his way in the dispute over the choice of referee?  When pushed for an answer as to whether the fight would be going ahead, Sadler’s response left reporters scratching their heads.

“The fight will be on or off, and the decision will be made today.”

Ultimately, the issue was resolved, and Foreman stepped into the ring that night with the third man in the ring being the one that his manager had wanted all along. The fight was on a Tuesday night and held at the brand new El Poliedro stadium. The 13,500-capacity arena was about two thirds full. Those that were in attendance seemed to favour Norton. At referee Jim Rondeau’s pre-fight instructions, Foreman cast a stare towards his opponent that Sonny Liston would have been proud of. Norton would not engage. It didn’t get any better for him.

Foreman was immediately on the front foot. Norton fought out of a crouch making him look much the smaller man. He landed a few of his own punches while fighting off the back foot, but they were not enough to stem the tide of Foreman’s heavier artillery. The champion landed several hooks with both hands in the opening three minutes that appeared to trouble the challenger. Norton was holding his own again in the second round until a series of hooks and uppercuts from Foreman bounced him against the ropes. As the ropes had prevented Norton from going down, Rondeau administered a count. Foreman immediately repeated the trick, the ropes again preventing Norton from hitting the canvas, but strangely the referee chose not to count this time. It only delayed the inevitable as a brutal five punch combination floored the challenger. A badly dazed Norton struggled to his feet, but his cornerman signalled to the referee to stop the fight. The official time of the stoppage was exactly two minutes of the second round. Foreman had produced another highlight reel stoppage. He told reporters that Norton’s decision to trade punches had played into his hands.

“He was thinking that he was a puncher also, so he started load up on a couple of hooks, so I went under him and took a little of his heart. Once I softened him up with a couple of body punches, the fight was mine. As you know, when I hurt a guy, I have to go out and finish him. That’s my job.”

Foreman was still complaining of pain in his right knee after the fight. He claimed that he had been dancing around the ring pre-fight to convince Norton that the knee was fine. The beaten challenger was looking for reasons for his quick defeat. His plan had been to box more, and he struggled to explain why he had not done so. One major reason was the champion’s ability to cut the ring off and make it feel small. Foreman offered Norton very few escape routes.

Dick Young, writing in the New York Daily News, felt that fear had led to Norton’s downfall.

“There was terror in Kenny Norton’s eye’s, stark terror, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the ring since Joe Louis’s opponents went as lambs to the slaughter.”

Dick Sadler was keen to remind people of his role in the development of the champion, with no room for modesty or understatement.

“I have created a monster. I hate to say it, but I’m a genius. I have created a perfect fighter. They’ve always called him a plodder. They don’t realise the other talents he has developed.”

Attention quickly turned to Zaire and the next stop on the heavyweight roadshow, with Don King promising “a super colossal spectacular, the likes of which the world hasn’t yet seen.” Inevitably, Angelo Dundee was claiming that his man would be the next champion, while Sadler said that fighting Foreman would end Ali’s career. Sadler’s was by far the more popular opinion.

The 25-year-old Foreman had now disposed of both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in a combined total of nine minutes and 43 seconds. To that point in time, those two fighters had taken Ali a total of 51 rounds. George Foremen’s three title fights had lasted a total of 11 minutes and 43 seconds. Ali would have to draw upon his bottomless well of self-belief to convince himself that he could defeat another monster.

“I’m the onlyest man in the world who can lick George Foreman. I admit George hits much harder than I do, but I’m much faster, so I can stay away from him for four or five rounds, which Norton couldn’t do. If George Foreman doesn’t get you in two, he gets frustrated.”

But in a more reflective moment he had to acknowledge what he had seen in the champion.

“Old George showed me something. I didn’t think he hit that hard. I didn’t think anybody hit that hard.”

The world would not have long to wait to find out what Ali would be able to do about it.

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