Frazier vs. Norton?

By Jarrett Zook on July 24, 2015
Frazier vs. Norton?
Frazier decided to let Norton into his camp and paid him $500 dollars a week to spar.

“He wasn’t sure if he could kick my ass, and I wasn’t sure if I could kick his ass, so we just remained buddies and never fought each other…”

It’s Saturday, July 12, 1975, and in some large stadium, in some large American city, two Hall of Fame heavyweights are about to square off. The air is thick, not only with smoke (this is the ‘70s after all) but with tension. After all, this is the Golden Era of Heavyweight Boxing and two highly ranked and well-known contenders are about to face each other for the first time. Howard Cosell was on duty for ABC and with his customary bravado, he introduced the American public to fighters they were already familiar with. After all, Ken Norton was a man of Herculean physique who had broken the great Muhammed Ali’s jaw. The Jaw Breaker was no favorite tonight, though, as the man at the other end of the ring was the formidable Smokin’ Joe Frazier. As of 1975, Norton and Frazier were the only two to emerge victorious over Ali and by that logic it was only a matter of time before the two would meet. Furthermore, both fighters were re-establishing themselves after devastating second round knockout losses against George Foreman. However, this is boxing and the expected does not always occur. Joe Frazier and Ken Norton never did end up facing each other, but what would happen if they did?

Before any conjecture on what would have happened in a Frazier-Norton bout, it is important to establish why this fight was never made. While the Jaw Breaker was five months older than Smokin’ Joe, Frazier turned pro a little over two years before Norton. Furthermore, Frazier was a gold medalist in the 1964 Olympics and had been fighting since his youth. Norton, on the other hand, was a high school track and football star who received a football scholarship to Northeast Missouri State. Ken did not take up boxing until he left college and joined the Marines. His first recorded bouts for the Marines occurred in 1963. By this time Frazier was already a two-time Golden Gloves heavyweight champion. Therefore, Frazier not only started his career earlier, but was also put on the fast track to the title due to his extensive amateur experience. Joe had already won the heavyweight title, while Ken’s career was still in its infant stages. Additionally, Norton’s relative anonymity allowed him to be trained by the very same trainer as Joe Frazier. Eddie Futch could train both fighters without being seen as having conflicting interests. This is because at the time it seemed very unlikely that Norton’s star power or boxing prowess would ever come close to rivaling Frazier’s.

Good fighters early in their careers often become sparring partners for those at the top of the sport. Consequently, as Norton shared the same trainer as Frazier, he was in the perfect position to serve as a sparring partner for a top heavyweight. In preparation for his 1970 fight with Jimmy Ellis, Frazier decided to let Norton into his camp and paid him $500 dollars a week to spar. While many fighters served little better than punching bags when standing in with Smokin’ Joe, Ken acquitted himself gamely. In that regard, Joe himself said, “He wasn’t sure if he could kick my ass, and I wasn’t sure if I could kick his ass, so we just remained buddies and never fought each other.” This outward mutual respect coupled with sharing Eddie Futch certainly made the prospects of a Norton-Frazier bout dim. In fact, it may sound as if there was a formal pact that neither fighter would fight each other; but no such thing existed. Rather the right price was never offered. Their relationship and admiration of each other’s skills simply meant that they weren’t willing to fight for anything other than an extremely large sum of money. Furthermore, even though both fighters were highly rated contenders in the mid-1970s, they already had pretty packed schedules. Norton fought Ali twice, George Foreman, Boone Kirkman, Jerry Quarry, and Jose Luis Garcia from 1973 to 1975. During this time period, Frazier fought Foreman, Joe Bugner, Ali twice, Jerry Quarry, and Jimmy Ellis. Thus, both fighters were busy taking on high level competition and there were only brief windows where the two could have possibly come to an agreement to fight each other. In addition, while Norton was a top ranked contender into the late 1970s, Frazier’s career was effectively over after one bout in 1976. This bout was a rematch against Foreman, in which the aged Smokin’ Joe acquitted himself gamely, yet was still overmatched and lost by fifth round TKO. After this bout Frazier retired, with the exception of one disastrous return bout in 1981.

Mid-summer 1975 seems to be one period where the two could have met in the ring if the right money was on the table, so let’s assume for the sake of argument it was. Ali had just made a title defense against Bugner in late June and no one was signed to be his next opponent. In July of 1975, Frazier was four months removed from a TKO victory over Jimmy Ellis and Norton was three and a half months removed from a TKO over Jerry Quarry. The two were ready to step it up another notch and they were also armed with knowledge that a fight against each other would serve as a de facto title eliminator. Both fighters had fought Ali twice, emerged victorious once, and had lost in their most recent try. They were clamoring to get back at “The Greatest,” and a fight against each other would put them on the fast track to it. Let’s assume Eddie Futch remains neutral and the right price is offered. The two agree to fight each other and neither has the advantage in their corner, it’s simply up Ken and Joe to decide who wins.

The opening bell sounds and Frazier characteristically comes bobbing and weaving forward, while Norton advances employing his awkward crablike “cross-armed defense.” Both fighters are best when advancing, but Frazier is a slow starter. Accordingly, most of Smokin’ Joe’s punches land against the ex-marine’s guard or are slipped altogether. On the other hand, Norton is able to find some success with left hooks and jabs. He is even able to land a few hard rights against the ex-champion’s skull. In round two, Norton looks to be warmed up and lands quite a few punches. Ken is the clear winner of this round, but Frazier seems to be unscathed and lands a few more punches than he did in the first round. The third round is closer, but it follows much the same narrative as the previous two rounds. Norton is able to put good use to his 3.5” height advantage and is able to land jabs and some hard straight rights against an aggressive opponent coming right to him. As the round comes to an end Frazier wings his trademarked left hook into Norton’s ribs. Joe may have lost the round, but he had just begun to chip away at the man seemingly made of granite.

Norton spends the minute between rounds three and four catching his breath. He is mostly recovered by the start of the round, but he is more recalcitrant this time around. Ken now tries to backpedal and box. Frazier is peppered with jabs, but keeps steaming forward. He knows he can’t get hurt and that a Norton on the retreat will have a hard time throwing his vaunted straight right without being able to sit down on it. Frazier’s volume punching is too much for his opponent and he lands many hard punches. This isn’t Norton’s first time in a hard place though and he is able to weather the storm mostly intact. His ribs are sore and there’s some swelling on his face, but he is still up three to one on the cards and knows that he definitely can’t just box his way to victory. Norton comes out more aggressively to start round five and catches Frazier off guard. Joe’s head rocks back consistently and blood begins to flow through his nose. However, even though Smokin’ Joe lost the round, he is still smoldering and lands a fair amount of punches himself.

The sixth round opens with both fighters trading evenly, Norton lands more often, but Frazier’s punches are more telling. Midway through the round, Frazier lands another huge left hook to Norton’s body. Now, with time to spare Joe is able to take advantage of his Herculean opponent’s newfound mortality. Smokin’ Joe’s puts Norton in a haze after landing some vicious punches to his head. Ken’s experience tells him to go into survival mode and he mostly covers up and throws just enough punches to show the ref that he still has some fight in him. Round seven starts with a confident Frazier charging forward guns a blazing. Norton is still a little woozy and Frazier appears to be teeing off. What Frazier doesn’t realize is that many of his punches are being blocked by Norton’s complex guard. Eventually, Frazier leaves himself open, is caught by a hard right, and stumbles backward. It’s Ken’s turn to be on the offensive and he now smells blood. Frazier is forced to weather a couple hard-hitting Norton combos. Just as it looks as if Joe may finally be a vulnerable, Ken’s attack begins to slow a little as he loses some wind. Joe has been landing devastating body punches all night and has cracked a few of Norton’s ribs. Additionally, his iron chin and indomitable will have allowed him to keep a clear head. Joe sees his opportunity and grabs it, landing numerous blows and sends Norton to the floor in a heap. The former Marine bravely gets up, but another volley sends him down and the referee calls off the fight, it’s a seventh round TKO victory for Joe Frazier. Right on cue, Howard Cosell pens one of his classic phrases, “Ladies and gentlemen, it seems Norton has suffocated from Smokin Joe’s pressure.”

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  1. Kasebamashila Kaseba 08:02am, 10/09/2016

    This is an interesting read full of insights. I have also wondered how Ali vs Frazier III at 2 to 1 to Ali; just as Ali vs Norton III at 2 to 1 to Ali; Foreman vs Frazier II at 2 to 0 to Foreman; Ali vs Foreman I to 1 to 0 to Ali; Foreman vs Norton I at 1 to 0 to Foreman league with multi rematches between fighters that didn’t include a fixture of Frazier vs Norton at 0 when I confirmed up this fight or probability to land on this article.

    I was impressed to read of the sparring partners’ explanation just as the Muhammad Ali vs Holmes that produced Holmes vs Ali I at 1 to Holmes only and last Ali fight.

    These match ups and probable match ups also reminded of Bowe vs Holyfield III trilogy, or Holyfield vs Lennox II and Tyson vs Holyfield II at 2 to 0 to Holyfield encounters whereas Bowe vs Tyson stayed at 0 whereas professional Bowe vs Lennox stayed 0.

    If this Frazier vs Norton 0 were not possible between sparring partners, it would have been interesting to reconstruct it, not from the writer’s knowledge of the fighters from their and other fights to score one fight to Frazier, but from snippets and interviews of the sparring sessions. It may not be late to pursue interviews of those that closely saw the two sparring partners.

  2. Eric 09:36am, 07/27/2015

    Frazier vs. Shavers? The logical choice is Frazier, but styles do make fights. Frazier was a slow starter and he was there to be hit. Who knows?

  3. Mike Casey 07:07am, 07/27/2015

    I think Joe would have intimidated Ken in much the same way as Earnie Shavers did.

  4. Gerald Barraza Jr 12:04am, 07/25/2015

    Frazier in 4,it would have been alot like the Manuel(pulgarcito) Ramos fight with Frazier getting rocked early,but,once that Hook got going….forget it!!! Norton was great,though,difference is Fraziers heart & unstoppable pressure!!

  5. peter 05:02pm, 07/24/2015

    Frazier by knockout. Norton, as good as he was, (and he was good), would be a sitting duck for Frazier’s buzzsaw style. Also, Norton could be intimidated, “(ie. with Larry Holmes),  and Frazier would get into Norton’s head.

  6. Clarence George 01:01pm, 07/24/2015

    I agree with Jarrod Barkley, er, Jarrett Zook (sorry, I was thinking of Linda Evans of “The Big Valley”).  I, too, see Frazier winning by seventh-round TKO.  Personally, I was never much impressed by Norton and don’t see him having much of a chance against Smokin’ Joe.

  7. Eric 09:13am, 07/24/2015

    I once asked Frazier why he never fought Norton. Of course they were friends and sparring partners. It was those sparring sessions according to Frazier, that convinced him & Norton, that Frazier would have come out on top. I’m sure Ken might have a different opinion, but who knows? I have to agree with Frazier. I think a Norton vs. Lyle fight circa ‘75-‘77 would have been interesting.

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