P.J.R.: Ken Norton had his Minnesota moments
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Ken Norton died this week at age 70. He had an even 50 professional fights (42-7-1) from 1967 to 1981. He fought in the Muhammad Ali Era, which means the last period that a major heavyweight boxing match was a compelling event in this country.
Norton fought Ali three times. He had fights against George Foreman and Larry Holmes. The only heavyweight legend of the time that he didn't get was Joe Frazier. They were supposed to have a title fight, but it never came off.
Joe Soucheray first became known in the Twin Cities as a sports columnist for the Minneapolis Morning Tribune. The angle the Tribune pushed with Sooch was that he was "different,'' and he certainly was that compared to those of us who came into the business as sports nuts.
Joe had a chance to cover a number of national fights for the Tribune, including the third Ali-Norton fight on Sept. 28, 1976, in Yankee Stadium. Ali and Norton had split a pair of split decisions in 1973, with Norton breaking Ali's jaw in the process in March, and Ali getting the call in a rematch in September.
Those were 12-rounders. The fight in Yankee Stadium was a 15-rounder for Ali's WBC and WBA titles.
Norton had fought Foreman for those titles in 1974 and was destroyed with three knockdowns in the first round. Foreman was considered the young, unbeatable monster of boxing, and then Ali pulled off his amazing upset of Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle'' later that year.
(Note: If you haven't seen "When We Were Kings,'' the documentary on the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, find it and watch it posthaste).
Ali still was carrying those titles when he fought Norton in 1976. The 15-rounder went to Ali in split decision that many folks claim to have been another of boxing's bad verdicts.
Sooch told the story this week on "Sports Talk'' of getting swept up in a crowd of reporters and the Norton delegation as both groups headed toward the locker room area.
Suddenly, Joe was looking at Norton and exclaimed, "Boy, what a fight,'' as in, "Holy cow, what a fight.''
To which Norton showed a fist and said: "Don't you call me 'boy.' ''
Three years later, Norton was in the Twin Cities to fight local favorite Scott LeDoux at Met Center. Norton was having his workouts at the St. Paul Auditorium and Sooch stopped by to get the information needed for a column.
Norton looked up, saw Sooch and with feigned agitation said, "Don't you call me 'boy.' ''
I went to work as a sportswriter in the Twin Cities in September 1968 and Norton-LeDoux is probably the most-famous local fight in that time. It was held on Aug. 19, 1979, a Sunday afternoon, and shown on NBC.
It wound up in a draw when LeDoux came on strong and knocked down Norton twice in the 10th round. The crowd was announced at 8,100. It was the zenith of LeDoux's career and pretty much the end for Norton, then 36.
Norton had a couple more fights. He won a split decision over Randy Cobb (a k a, Leonard Smalls, the motorcycle baby snatcher in "Raising Arizona''). And then Norton was knocked out in the first round by Gerry Cooney in November 1981 and retired from boxing.
Norton also appeared in 20-plus movie, most notably (and regrettably) in the 1975 classic of exploitation, "Mandingo.''
Nationally, Norton had a more notorious fight with a Minnesotan than the brawl with LeDoux. In May 1977, Norton met Duane Bobick in Madison Square Garden. This was going to be the last step for Bobick to get a title fight, back in the day when there were only a couple of organizations awarding titles.
I remember being in a press box, covering a Twins game, and someone in a back row saying, "The fight's about to start.'' I wanted to finish a paragraph before going back to watch it. Before that was accomplished, the same person said: "The fight's over. Norton knocked him out in a minute.''
What I had forgotten until it was pointed out by Joel Rippel, a Minnesota sports historian, is that Norton fought here prior to his bout with LeDoux in Bloomington.
Norton knocked out a fellow named Jose Luis Garcia in the fifth round of a bout at the St. Paul Civic Center in August 1975.
Two bouts in the Twin Cities, the infamous quick KO of Bobick, and numerous paragraphs of prose from the sportswriter Soucheray ... we've claimed Minnesota connections to famous athletes based on less.
[HERE'S AN UPDATE from minnesotaboxing.com on a card held Saturday at the Minneapolis Convention Center, featuring Caleb Truax, the main attraction on the local boxing scene at the moment:
"Caleb Truax won by TKO victory at 1:49 of the fourth round over Cerresso Fort ... After a close first round and a half, Truax took over the fight with body shots. A right uppercut in round 4 hurt Fort, and Truax followed up with more uppercuts and straight rights until Fort fell to the canvas.
"Truax keeps his MN state title and also wins the USBA middleweight title with the victory.'']
--PATRICK JAMES REUSSE.