Bouts That Never Were: Ken Norton vs. Joe Frazier
by Don Colgan
August 29, 1974.
By the time spring had arrived in March 1974, both former heavyweight titleholder Joe Frazier and top-ranked contender Ken Norton had one thing in common: They had both been brutally knocked out within the past 14 months. Joe had been slugged to the canvas half a dozen times in his championship-surrendering slaughter against George Foreman; Norton, in his March 1974 title challenge against Foreman, survived the first round intact and was massacred in the second with three trips to the deck and a brutal TKO defeat.
Foreman's powerful hold on the heavyweight title seemed beyond dispute as former champion Muhammad Ali and his predictable bombast loomed as George's next challenge. The contest, scheduled for September 24 in Kinshasa, Zaire, was widely forecast as another Foreman demolition job. The public demanded the bout, and the expectation of another early round knockout by the monstrous Californian had led to an outpouring of sympathy and impended doom for the great ex champion.
Smokin' Joe's stature within the heavyweight division was clearly on the decline. He had been easily out-pointed by Ali in their 12-round return bout at Madison Square Garden in January, and his 12-round decision triumph over European heavyweight champion Joe Bugner the previous September was not without difficulty. He did, however, take one step back by pounding old foe Jerry Quarry into submission in five one-sided rounds. Yet Foreman's savage stoppage of the slugging Frazier had not only shorn Joe of his championship, it had shorn away his aura of invincibility. Joe was no more than a fair contender for his old title and a possible stepping stone for a young title aspirant.
Norton, on the other hand, had been given a chance by numerous scribes prior to his championship go with Foreman in Caracas. He had beaten Ali and possessed the physical attributes, punching power, and awkward defense to provide George with a difficult proposition. But it had not yet been revealed that Norton could not stand up to a big puncher. He entered the ring in mortal terror of the champion and how he managed to avoid destruction in the first canto was his only real achievement that night. The first time Foreman hit Ken, he staggered into the ropes and took a standing eight count. Within a minute, the challenger had been dropped twice more, and Foreman was still the champion.
Although Norton had worked with Frazier as a sparring partner during Joe's reign, his rise to prominence in the heavyweight division came largely after Frazier's title stoppage by Foreman. Another obstacle to Ken's meeting Smokin' Joe was the issue of their close friendship and Joe's stated contention that he wouldn't fight Norton under any conditions.
It was opined by many in boxing circles during mid 1974 that if Frazier or Norton ever hoped to meet Foreman in a return, a collision between the pair would have to take place. Of course, they never met, and Ali's October KO over Foreman in Africa restructured the heavyweight division, making title shots for both Frazier and Norton realities over the following two years.
However, what if the two top contenders put aside their friendship, realizing that at least one of them would be in line for a championship return with the monstrous Foreman. What if former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and No. 3-ranked heavyweight contender Ken Norton met at Madison Square Garden in a 12-round championship elimination bout on August 29, 1974. Joe entered the ring a slim 6-5 favorite over Norton as referee Tony Perez brought the pair together for final instructions before a Garden crowd of 20,103 that included champion Foreman and the ever-loquacious Ali.
Frazier, historically a slow starter, had Foreman's early KO of Norton in mind as he crowded Norton into the ropes and landed his trademark left hook flush on Ken's jaw less than 20 seconds into the fight. Immediately wobbled, Ken used his height and reach advantages to shove Joe off and find refuge in ring center. Norton was short with a right uppercut and managed to bounce a weak left off of Joe's head in close. Joe was smokin' as he muscled inside and drove a hard left hook to Norton's liver and a follow-up straight right to Norton's mouth that drew a trickle to blood from the larger man's lip. Norton, trying desperately to keep Joe at the end of his jab, circled to Frazier's left and then banged a solid right off of the top of Frazier's head, his first telling blow of the bout. Frazier cut the ring off on Norton again and worked both hands to the body, then whistled a blistering left hook that Ken deftly avoided. Norton landed a neat one-two to Frazier's head as Joe responded with a hard counter right to the head at the bell.
The former champion resumed with a blistering attack in the second heat. Frazier hooked his left to Norton's body and then rocked Ken back on his heels with a clubbing right to Norton's head. Ken's defense seemed porous, as Joe's big punches were landing at will. Frazier missed with a long left hook and then doubled up with a solid right smash to Norton's ribcage and a straight right hand to Norton's chin that again wobbled Ken's knees. An angry welt emerged on Norton's left side as Frazier drilled another left hook to the body and follow-up right to the chin.
Norton pulled Joe into a long clinch and wrestled him into his own corner before Perez separated the fighters. Norton scored with a glancing right to the head, slipped a Frazier left hook, and stopped Joe in his tracks with a left hook of his own, which was clearly his best punch of the fight. Frazier missed with a left hook; Norton scored with a right uppercut to the chin and worked in a good left to the body. Frazier slowed a bit while still moving forward, surprised Norton with two crisp right jabs at the bell.
During the rest period, Eddie Futch cautioned Joe to respect Norton's power and not to take chances. The brisk pace of the first two rounds slowed as Frazier worked inside, ripping short, solid shots to the body. Norton's conditioning was keeping him in the fight, as he countered effectively, landing several solid left and right leads to Joe's head late in the round. In the last 30 seconds, the pace quickened as Frazier buried his head in Norton's chest, took a good right hand and countered with a jolting left hook to the ribs, followed by a clubbing right hand to the head. Norton fired back with both hands and then missed a roundhouse right to the head as the round ended.
Frazier opened the fourth again on the attack, digging a hard right to Norton's body followed by a clubbing right to the jaw that forced Ken to hold. Norton jabbed Joe hard against the ropes, Frazier missed badly with a left hook, Norton countered with a solid left right left to the head that slowed Frazier. Norton hooked a left to the head. Norton banged a right uppercut, followed by another solid left hook, to Frazier's head. Frazier missed with a left hook. Norton ripped a right to the body. Norton drove a hard left hook to Frazier's head. Frazier banged a left to the body inside. The action slowed as they wrestled in Norton's corner. Perez broke the fighters as Norton got in a light right to the head at the bell.
The fifth round slowed as Norton continued his resurgence, driving a beautiful left lead to Frazier's head and a solid right that banged off Joe's ear. Frazier was punching less and taking small breathers. Norton landed two right jabs to Joe's face and then connected with a stunning left hook to the point of the former champion's chin. Frazier fired back with both hands, driving Ken into the ropes. Norton missed a left to the body. Frazier was wild with a right hook at the rounds end.
Norton's right eye began to swell early in round six. Frazier opened wild again, missing two sizzling left hooks that sailed past the ex Marine's chin. Norton drove a hard right to the head, was short with a left hook, and plastered Joe with a double left hook to the head, right cross to the head, left hook to the body salvo that brought a hint of rubber to the Philadelphian's knees. Frazier grunted as he pounded Norton with two left hooks to the body, missed with a clubbing right, took two hard jabs from Norton before countering with a good left hook to the chin at the conclusion of the round.
Frazier came out strong for the seventh, muscling inside and making Norton wince with a vicious right hand that banged off of Ken's sore ribcage. Frazier landed two lefts to the body. Norton scored with a solid right to the head, then missed awkwardly with a left hook. Norton fired a big left hook to the head that missed, Joe slipped under the punch and landed a crunching left hook that exploded off of Norton's chin. Down went the Californian, flat on his back in ring center.
At five Ken pushed himself onto one knee and took the full nine count. Badly dazed, he sought the refuge of ring center, telegraphing two weak, long jabs at Joe in an attempt to buy time. Frazier drove a hard left to the body and buried another left hook into Norton's midsection. Norton clinched and threw his arms around Joe. Perez broke the fighters. Norton missed with a right uppercut and Frazier exploded another powerful left hook off of Norton's jaw, dropping him flat on his face in his own corner. Glassy eyed, Norton pulled himself to his feet with the help of the ropes. Perez looked into his eyes, asked him a question and promptly waved Joe off for a TKO victory at 2:55 of the seventh round.
Smokin' Joe Frazier has placed himself squarely in position for a return bout with champion George Foreman, a bout that, in realty, would take place two years later and would end in a fifth-round KO defeat by George that wrote finis to Joe's great career.