Boxing & MMA

Larry Holmes explains why Ken Norton fight ranks highest as ‘My Sweetest Victory’

Welcome to SN’s “My Sweetest Victory’ series where boxers past and present pick their greatest triumphs and break down what made them so sweet. Why take our word for it when you can hear from the ones who touched gloves? Here is the greatest win of Larry Holmes’ career, as explained by Holmes himself.

Fight: Ken Norton

Date/ Location: June 9, 1978/ Caesars Palace, Sports Pavilion, Las Vegas

Distance: 15 rounds

World Titles: WBC heavyweight (held by Norton)

Records: Holmes (27-0, 19 KOs), Norton (40-4, 32 KOs)

Odds: Norton was a 6/5 favorite

Result: Holmes SD 15 (142-143, 143-142, and 143-142)

The set-up: The Norton vs. Holmes fight was the first time that the heavyweight championship had been split in almost a decade.

Throughout the 1970s, the undisputed title had been passed between Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, and George Foreman. However, when Leon Spinks dethroned Ali via split decision in February 1978, the new champ was committed to facing Norton, who was the WBC’s No. 1 rated challenger.

That only sounds simple.

“The Greatest” lobbied hard for a Spinks rematch, which Spinks accepted, but the WBC refused to surrender to Ali’s star power. Then-president José Sulaimán stripped Spinks, who would go on to face Ali for the WBA version of the crown in September 1978, and upgraded Norton to full WBC champion.

Confused? So was everyone else.

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Norton’s first defense would be against Holmes, who was an unbeaten stylist from Easton, Pennsylvania. The jury was still out on the challenger, but he’d recently turned heads with a dominant 12-round unanimous decision victory over feared knockout artist Earnie Shavers.

Still, Norton, a powerful ex-Marine, who held wins over Ali, Jerry Quarry, and Jimmy Young, was installed as the pre-fight favorite.

What transpired between these future Hall of Famers was one of the greatest heavyweight championship fights of all time. Holmes had never been 15 rounds before, but this was the first of six occasions in which he would prove himself an authentic 15-round warrior.

“I was prepared to fight 20 rounds if I had to,” Holmes told The Sporting News recently. “I didn’t agree with [cutting the rounds to 12 for a championship fight]. I was always ready to go because I was in shape. The other guys weren’t in shape, they weren’t ready, but I was always ready to go – 12 rounds, 15 rounds, 100 rounds.

“There’s no fighters out there who can fight like we fought, especially in the heavyweight division. There’s no Muhammad Ali. There’s no Larry Holmes. There’s a lot of little guys out there who can fight, but they don’t get the recognition.”

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It was that unforgettable 15th round of Norton vs. Holmes that took this showdown into the rarefied territory of all-time great prize fights. And, as it turned out, Holmes needed to win those three minutes in order to begin his legendary seven-and-a-half-year title reign.

The Sporting News caught up with “The Easton Assassin” to discuss his sweetest victory:

Why did Ken Norton-Larry Holmes happen?

“A lot of people were saying that I couldn’t do it, that I wouldn’t make it, so this gave me the opportunity to show the people that they were wrong and I was right.

“I was happy because I was getting a chance to fight for the title and that’s all that mattered. At that time I was just thinking about the title; not the dollars, nothing else. It was all about the title.

“[Norton was] tough… tough. Every time I see him, or hear his name, it reminds me of that 15th round; fighting Kenny Norton, getting hit with left hooks and right hands. That’s what made me – I can take it.

“Kenny Norton was strong, his body told you that, [just by] looking at him. Everybody bet on Ken Norton to win the fight, so that motivated me even more.”

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What was your sparring and preparation like for Ken Norton?

“My left arm went out [during training]. I got hit [in sparring], I don’t remember the name of the guy, but I got hit, and it pulled a muscle.

“My doctor, Keith Kleven, rubbed my arm down and fixed it up. I seen him practically every day. He was in my corner. I had the doctor [at the fight], watching, and I worked that left hand like there was no tomorrow.

“I overcame [the injury.]”

Larry Holmes (right) challenges Ken Norton for the title

Photo by John Iacono/ Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

What was your strategy for Ken Norton?

“My strategy was to move, circle, side to side, use my jab, and use a right hand every now and then.

“[Norton] could punch; he hit hard, I mean real hard. I didn’t want to get hit, and that was one of the reasons why I danced and moved. He was probably the hardest puncher I fought outside of Earnie Shavers.

“I was tired [by the midway point and stood my ground], but I figured, I’m tired, he’s tired. We’re fighting, there’s no stop to it. And that’s what I did, I fought my fight. If he hit me, I’m going to hit him two times, three times.

“And when they said, ‘And the new heavyweight champion of the world,’ that put the icing on the cake.”

Did the Ken Norton fight go as you expected?

“Yeah, it was hard. Fighting Kenny Norton is hard.

“I told my wife that after I beat Kenny Norton, I’m gonna jump in that swimming pool [at Caesars Palace]. That was a fun time, even newspaper writers were jumping in the water. They were happy for me and we had a great time.”

What surprised you about Ken Norton?

“He could take it – he could take the punches. What do you want? I’m hitting you with punches, you’re supposed to slow down when I’m hitting you with that. He never stopped.”

Can you describe the closing round of the Ken Norton fight in detail?

“My life is on the line. It was hard as hell to fight this man that’s got the title. To lose it to me, he’s gonna fight me, and that’s what we did – we got in the middle of the ring and we fought. He hit me and I hit him. I just hit him a little bit more. But he was a great man to stand in there with me.

“I didn’t think [the fight] was close. I thought I won the fight clearly. Practically every round, my jab was hitting him, and I was hitting him with right hands.”

Explain your feelings after you beat Ken Norton?

“[I was on cloud nine] for eight years.

“That was the toughest fight I ever had and it was one that I needed because no one gave me any respect. People couldn’t say I got lucky. There was no luck in my punches when I was throwing them – that was skill, everything I did was skillful.

“I was taught by a guy by the name of Ernie Butler [as an amateur]. He taught me how to fight, he taught me how to throw the jab, he taught me how to throw the right hand. And I also sparred Muhammad Ali. I learned boxing with Muhammad Ali at his camp. You can’t buy that.”

Read the author’s full story here

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