by Gautham Nagesh
George Foreman won the heavyweight championship by knocking Joe Frazier down six times over two rounds in a dominating performance in January 1973. Foreman then needed only two minutes to dismiss the unworthy Jose Roman that September in his next fight, making his March 1974 defense against Ken Norton in Caracas, Venezuela his first true test as champion.
Norton earned the title shot by splitting a pair of fights with Muhammad Ali the previous year, breaking Ali’s jaw in the process. Considered one of the few heavyweights capable of matching Foreman’s awesome size and power, Norton’s tight defense was expected to pose problems for the towering Texan. It didn’t work out that way.
As usual, Foreman cut an imposing figure, even though Norton sported an impressive physique in his own right. Despite being nearly the same size as Norton, Foreman’s 10-lb weight advantage was visible in his waist and legs, which resembled tree trunks. Even with Norton’s advantage in speed and technique, there was a palpable sense of danger from the way Foreman stalked his prey at the opening bell. Norton bounced and jabbed, but his movements appeared slightly frantic, and the searching left hooks he launched at the champ seemed almost desperate.
Foreman followed his opponent patiently, with his hands low, looking to parry Norton’s left and respond with his own heavy jab. Soon he began tagging Norton with that jab, and following quickly with wide shots from both hands. A heavy left hook clouted Norton against the ropes, followed by an uppercut thrown with bad intentions. One could never accuse Foreman of demonstrating great punching technique, but his raw, natural power was a great equalizer inside the ring.
Norton escaped the ropes and began retreating once again, but Foreman wisely followed with hard body shots from both hands. Foreman’s chin was one of the greatest in the sport’s history, so even when Norton landed a hard right hand, it made little discernable impact. Foreman took shots and responded without blinking, appearing to get the best of it, even when his punches were blocked and Norton’s weren’t.
Ali, who was ringside, took the mic between rounds to offer Norton encouragement and kudos for surviving the first round. Ali apparently spent much of the fight yelling instructions to Norton, but it was Foreman who seized the moment in round 2. He trapped Norton against the ropes, then caught him with a hard right hand as the challenger tried to bounce away. A left hand followed, then a series of ugly, chopping uppercuts, and Norton found himself falling back into the ropes for a count.
Norton rose, but was sent immediately cascading back into the ropes by a left hand from Foreman. Instead of counting, the ref grabbed Norton and pushed him back at Foreman, who met him with a vicious left hook that punched through Norton’s guard. Another left followed, then a right uppercut to the chin, and another as Norton fell backward again. Norton staggered to his feet, but was unable to beat the count. Official time of the stoppage was 2:00 of Round 2.
The win would prove to be one of the highlights of the Foreman’s first incarnation, as he would lose the title in his very next fight, the “Rumble in the Jungle” against Ali in Kinhasa. That fight, perhaps more than any other, would cement Ali’s legacy as an athlete capable of performing the impossible. But it was Foreman’s crushing wins over Frazier and Norton, both of whom had bested Ali, that made Ali’s subsequent win seem that much more remarkable. Foreman completed his own legendary feat 20 years later when he stopped Michael Moorer to become the oldest heavyweight champion of all-time.
Norton reeled off seven straight wins before losing a disputed decision to Ali in the finale of their trilogy in September 1976. He was lated awarded the WBC belt on a technicality, which he promptly lost in one of the greatest heavyweight fights of all-time against Larry Holmes. Holmes was awarded the decision by a razor-thin margin, and went on to one of the longest reigns in modern heavyweight history. Despite never winning the championship inside the ring, Norton remains one of the most beloved and respected heavyweights in boxing history.