I was reading a blog last night and came across a post on Joe Frazier vs Mohammed Ali. Hearing about the death of Joe Frazier this week brought back some memories that I thought I'd share.
I grew up watching boxing: my father was a sports enthusiast, and the 1970’s with Joe Frazier, Mohammed Ali, Ken Norton and George Foreman was an exceptional era in boxing.
I was born in Jacksonville, Illinois in 1961. My father was a local physician. He loved medicine, but he would get sidetracked into these extravagant side projects, usually involving sports. He had money and an outsized personality. He owned Sprint cars and his car won the USAC Championship in 1967. All this to give you a bit of background: boxing was a short leap for my dad.
Besides that we had a personal connection.
Those of you who know boxing may have already see this coming. I said I grew up in Jacksonville, IL. Another person with that same hometown is Ken Norton.
I remember John and Ruth Norton, and their son Ken, and his son Kenny Jr. from when they started coming to our house. Ken must have been making a name for himself as a boxer, and my dad began to follow his career. I remember the huge excitement when Ken Norton beat Mohammed Ali. It was “hometown boy does good”.
In a rematch, Ali defeated Norton, and then George Foreman defeated Ali making Foreman the Champ.
In 1974 Ken Norton fought George Foreman in Caracas, Venezuela for the heavy weight title and my family traveled there for the fight. I was 12 years old. I remember the excitement, I remember the celebrities and I remember the circus atmosphere. It was a pretty remarkable time.
In the days leading up to the fight, there was a lot of talk about how Foreman was trying to psych Norton, to intimidate him. Everyone was a bit worried, because although we were sure Norton would win, this development concerned us.
Then I learned first-hand just how intimidating George Foreman was.
Caracas of that era didn’t have too many high-end hotels, so everyone was staying at the same one. I can picture in my mind walking across the hotel lobby; George Foreman and his crew were walking toward us and I suddenly came face-to-face with him. I’d seen big men. I knew Ken and I had seen him spar. Statistically they were not that different, both were 6’3” and although Foreman outweighed Norton, it was only by maybe 10 pounds. But I want to tell you that the difference in demeanor, the difference in expression, the difference in the way they carried themselves was remarkable. Go back and look at the expression on Foreman’s face when he’s in the ring with Norton and you’ll see what I mean.
I remember looking at Ken, and for the first time wondering if he would lose the fight. George Foreman looked absolutely invincible.
The night of the fight I stayed at the hotel. I don’t remember if I wanted to go or not. At that point in time, bringing a 12 year old girl to a boxing match would have been unusual. My Dad and John Norton went, and I stayed in the room to watch the fight on TV with Ken’s mother Ruth and his aunt. I remember Ruth saying she never watched Kenny’s fights. As a mother, I can understand why. But they wanted to know what was happening, so it fell to me to be the play-by-play announcer. They sat away from the TV, wanting to know what was transpiring without actually having to see it.
The first round was pretty even. I just re-watched the fight on YouTube and there’s nothing too remarkable, just two boxers testing each other without landing too many punches. Then the second round starts, and if you watch you’ll see Foreman land a single punch that obviously hurts Norton and then follows it with a series of fast, hard punches to the head and Norton falls into the ropes.
I remember yelling, “He’s down! He’s down!”
They said, “Who’s down? Foreman?”
I said, “No! Norton. Norton is down!”
Ken gets up and gets an eight count and the fight restarts, but it’s over in another 10 seconds. Foreman continues to land punches and Norton is knocked to the mat again. When he gets up his legs can barely hold him. Foreman is declared the winner.
Afterwards, all the talk was of how Ken had not been himself the night of the fight. Foreman had gotten into his head and it seemed like Norton was in a daze even before the first punch was thrown.
I don’t know if that’s true, all I can say is that if sporting competitions are decided as much by mental preparedness as by physical capabilities, then I think Foreman beat Norton before they ever stepped into the ring that night.