People will feel how they feel about boxing. It is the essence of violence. It is, and will always be, corrupt. It offers false hope to many and has been a playground for gangsters.
But every now and again, if you can stand to look, boxing can bring out something deep in the human spirit.
Below is the 15th round of Larry Holmes-Ken Norton. It is one of the greatest rounds in the long and tattered history of professional boxing. The 15th round came at the end of a ferocious and close fight that Norton would finally lose in a split decision. I thought he won it when I watched it. But I was only 11.
It was Norton’s fate to linger just beneath the great fighters of his day. He broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw once but lost two other close decisions to The Greatest. He never fought Joe Frazier but sparred with him and Frazier said he was hell to fight. Norton was clubbed into submission by an ascendant George Foreman -- Norton’s attacking style was grist for Foreman’s power. And this loss to Holmes more or less ended things for him, though like most other fighters he kept fighting until the sad and inevitable ending (Norton’s ending came at the hands of Gerry Cooney, who knocked him out in the first round. Norton was 38 and dead on his feet at the opening bell).
Norton’s style was simple and, I think, what drew me to him. He moved forward. That’s all. He was lighter than the other heavyweights, which made the style seem even more unreasonable. His idea of defense was turning his body just so in order to dampen the power of their punches -- you often heard him called “awkward.” But awkward or not, he kept coming forward, offering himself up to be hit. I guess he figured that if you could hit him and he could hit you, he would win most of the time. In 50 professional fights, he was right 42 times.
And this final round against Holmes was the height of his unique blend of audacity and will and punching power. I remember watching this as an 11-year-old and wondering how in the world either man could stay up through all of this. I watch it now, 35 years later, and wonder the same thing. The last few seconds of the fight, Holmes just throws power shot after power shot, and Norton refused to fall.
When I heard that Ken Norton died on Wednesday, at the age of 70, I could not help but think of con-man Bill Mizner’s classic line (as retold by Red Smith) when he heard that the great fighter Stanley Ketchel had died. “Tell ‘em to start counting,” Mizner said. “And he’ll get up.”