Former heavyweight champion Ken Norton, who beat Muhammad Ali and later lost a controversial decision to him in Yankee Stadium, died Wednesday at a care facility. He was 70.
Ken Norton Jr., a coach with the Seattle Seahawks, confirmed the death to The Associated Press before handing the phone to his wife, too distraught to talk.
Norton, the only heavyweight champion never to win the title in the ring, had been in poor health for the past several years after suffering a series of strokes, a friend of the fighter’s said.
“He’s been fighting the battle for two years,” said Gene Kilroy, Ali’s former business manager. “I’m sure he’s in heaven now with all the great fighters. I’d like to hear that conversation.”
Norton broke Ali’s jaw in their first bout, beating him by a split decision in 1973 in a nontitle fight in San Diego. They fought six months later, and Ali won a split decision.
They met for a third time Sept. 28, 1976, at Yankee Stadium, and Ali narrowly won to keep his heavyweight title.
Norton would come back the next year to win a heavyweight title eliminator and was declared champion by the World Boxing Council. But on June 9, 1978, he lost a bruising 15-round fight to Larry Holmes in what many regard as one of boxing’s epic heavyweight bouts and would never be champion again.
He fought Leavittsburg native Earnie Shavers in a heavyweight fight March 23, 1979, in Las Vegas. Shavers won by KO at 1:58 of the first round.
“Kenny was a good, good fighter. He beat a lot of guys,” said Ed Schuyler Jr., who covered many of Norton’s fights for The Associated Press. “He gave Ali fits because Ali let him fight coming forward instead of making him back up.”
Norton finished with a record of 42-7-1 and 33 knockouts. He later would embark on an acting career, appearing in several movies, and was a commentator at fights.
“So saddened by the passing of Ken Norton Sr. and sending condolences to the Norton family,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll tweeted. “This hits close to home for all of us here.”
Ken Norton Jr. was a linebacker for 13 years in the NFL, playing for Dallas and San Francisco, and is a linebackers coach with the Seahawks. He and his father were estranged for a time in the 1990s before finally reconciling.