20. Larry Holmes Vs Kenny Norton
June 9, 1978
Las Vegas, Nevada
Venue: Caesars Palace
On February 15, 1978, Leon Spinks shocked the boxing world by defeating the incomparable Muhammad Ali to become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World. The WBC had mandated that the winner of the fight was to immediately fight its number one contender, Ken Norton. Spinks decided instead to fight Ali in a rematch that would be much more financially lucrative for him. The WBC stripped Spinks of their version of the title and awarded it to Norton. Norton was the first Heavyweight to win a version of the world title never to win it inside a boxing ring. Norton’s first defense would be against the WBC number one contender, a 28-year-old former sparring partner of Ali, Larry Holmes.
Norton was a couple months shy of his 35th birthday before he was to defend against Holmes. Seeing Holmes easily out-box the 33-year-old Earnie Shavers to earn this title shot, I told my father that Holmes would do the same to the older champion. Holmes’ style reminded my father and me of a young Ali. My father reminded me that Norton gave Ali hell in their three fight trilogy and that his style would give Holmes fits. For the first five rounds, that wasn’t the case. Holmes landed his piston-like jab, the greatest jab I’ve ever seen in my 43 years of following the sport, and controlled the action from the outside the entire first seven rounds. Norton landed a few nice jabs and right crosses, but was unable to get past that battering ram of a left jab.
After the seventh round ended, I told my father that Norton was washed up and that the fight was all but over. My father reminded me that it was a 15-round fight and it was a long way from being over. Norton proved my father right by dominating the eighth round. He began to surprisingly out-jab the challenger and land several big rights. In the ninth round, Holmes began moving more and continued to double and triple his jab. But Holmes’s jab was no longer keeping Norton from getting inside. Norton landed three booming rights in the ninth round. Between rounds 10-12, Norton’s constant pressure and combinations off his jab carried the fight. Going into the 13th round, Norton had significantly closed the gap on the judges’ scorecards. The last three rounds would be, in my opinion, the greatest last three rounds in Heavyweight boxing history.
Midway through the 13th round, Holmes staggered Norton with a tremendous left and right combination. He battered Norton all over the ring with several power punches. Norton survived the round and my father warned me that Norton, even though he looked finish, still had some fight left in him. Just like that, my father was once again right. Holmes had punched himself out trying to knockout Norton in the 13th. The 14th saw both men slugging on the inside. Then, with less than a minute left in the round, Norton staggered Holmes with a right uppercut and right cross. Now it was Holmes who had to hold on and survive. The ebb and flow of the last two rounds was right out of a movie. It would have a cinematic ending.
Holmes, although badly hurt and completely exhausted, stood toe-to-toe with Norton for the entire 15th round. The first two minutes of the round saw Norton land every single power punch in his repertoire, but was unable to put the challenger on his back. With about a minute left, Holmes staggered Norton with a sensational right uppercut and now Norton was in deep trouble. Holmes landed one hellacious shot after another off of Norton’s jaw. My father and I were both screaming at the television in pure adulation of what we were seeing. My mother was yelling at us to keep the noise down. The round ended with Holmes landing several vicious right hands. In my opinion, it’s the greatest 15th round in the history of the sport. Both men gave it their all in an epic conclusion to a great fight. Holmes would win the title via split decision.
Holmes would hold the title for a little over seven years and defend it 20 times. He would become one of the greatest fighters in the history of the Heavyweight division. He would shockingly lose his title to World Light Heavyweight Champion Michael Spinks, the younger brother of Leon, on September 21, 1985. At the time he was unbeaten in 48 fights, just one shy of Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record. Holmes would lose a controversial decision to Spinks seven months later. After being retired for two years, Holmes fought undisputed champion Mike Tyson on January 22, 1988. After showing glimpses of his former brilliance, the young lion was too much for Holmes, as Tyson violently knocked him out in the fourth round. Holmes, despite opening several businesses in his hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, made another comeback three years later. This comeback included him losing twice by decision in attempt to win back the heavyweight title. Holmes went an incredible 21-3 in that final comeback before finally retiring in 2002 at the age of 52. Today, at the age of 69, Holmes is still very lucid and spry despite being in the ring for over 30 years.
Norton was never the same after losing to Holmes. A year later, Shavers would destroy him in only round one. Then, on May 11, 1981, in a fight I attended with my father in Madison Square Garden, Norton was once again destroyed in the first round by Gerry Cooney. Norton retired after being a sacrificial lamb to the severely limited Cooney at the age of 37. In 1986, Norton was involved in a near fatal car accident that left him with a speech impediment. He died of natural causes in 2013 at the age of 70. He was one of the great gentlemen who ever stepped into the square circle. He gave legendary fighters Ali and Holmes some of their toughest fights. In his prime he turned down a huge money offer to fight Joe Frazier because their friendship and love meant more to him than money. That right there was a perfect example of how great a man Ken Norton was.