Holmes-Norton: “The Legend of Larry Holmes”

By Thad Moore on February 21, 2016
Holmes-Norton: “The Legend of Larry Holmes”
"He was all muscle. He was so strong. He was tough to fight. He always came forward."

“This was my chance. If I didn’t take the fight, who knows what would have happened. I didn’t want to miss my shot…”

The 1978 WBC title bout between champion Ken Norton and challenger Larry Holmes was one of the most fiercely contested battles in heavyweight history. Just when you thought Holmes was in complete control, Norton would wrest momentum and take charge.

Leading up to the fight, there was a lot of animosity between Norton and Holmes. Norton showed up at Holmes’ training camp causing a scuffle where the fighters had to be separated. Both combatants had to also be kept apart during the weigh-in.

The under-appreciated battle featured a challenger in Holmes who some in the boxing community questioned. Even though Holmes, 28, earned the title shot by defeating Earnie Shavers, noted boxing historian Henry Hascup echoed why there was uncertainty about Holmes.

“Holmes hadn’t been tested. There was a question about Holmes’ chin and heart. Holmes was stopped twice as an amateur by Nick Wells. Duane Bobick floored Holmes (as an amateur) and Larry held on and was disqualified.”

Promoter Russell Peltz expressed different concerns about Norton being awarded the belt as he felt Jimmy Young was victorious in the title eliminator. “Norton didn’t have a whole lot of appeal on his own.”

After upsetting Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks elected to give him an immediate rematch rather than make a mandatory WBC defense against Norton. Norton, 32, was awarded the WBC title after Spinks was stripped. Norton then signed on to fight new mandatory number one contender, Holmes. Interestingly, Norton became the first heavyweight to win a title without having to win it inside the ring.

One week before the fight, Holmes injured his left bicep in preparation for the championship bout. Trainer Richie Giachetti tried to keep the injury quiet, as Holmes stopped his workouts. “This was my chance. If I didn’t take the fight, who knows what would have happened. I didn’t want to miss my shot,” said Holmes.

Over 15 rounds of on the edge of your seat action, Norton and Holmes were about to put away any lingering doubts about any possible shortcomings. Holmes controlled many of the early rounds of the fight behind his dominant jab. The challenger also piled up points behind his vaunted right hand and left hook.

In fact, the judges scored four of the first five rounds for Holmes. Norton admitted after the fight that he was trying to get Holmes to tire himself out in the early going. He later pointed out that he regretted using this strategy.

Norton changed course in the middle rounds and became much more active. He landed power shots to the body and head negating Holmes’ jab. In the seventh round, Holmes re-injured his left bicep after Norton landed a right hand. According to Holmes, this re-injury was another contributing factor to his inability to use the jab effectively, particularly in the second half of the fight.

“I only had my right hand. I couldn’t use my left like I’m used to. I fought through it because I had to. I knew it was my only chance to win.”

After 12 rounds, Holmes maintained a narrow lead on the judges’ scorecards. Both fighters were about to put on a memorable display of skill and determination over the final three rounds.

The 13th round started with Norton landing a jab and right hand to the body. One minute into the round, Holmes hit Norton with a strong right hand, followed up by a left hook. In the middle part of the round, Holmes landed several right hands, but Norton countered with a left hook and right hand to the body. The final 45 seconds of the round was dominated by Holmes. Holmes was setting down on his punches as he landed effective combinations. Holmes landed a right hand and left hook that put Norton in a world of trouble. He followed up with a right and a left uppercut as Norton went back to his corner badly hurt. At the end of the round, the crowd chanted “Larry, Larry!”

Norton was able to recover in between rounds and showed his championship mettle in the 14th. To start the round, both fighters traded jabs in the center of the ring. Throughout the stanza, Norton pressed the action by landing left jabs, followed up by left hooks to the head and body. Norton landed a right uppercut, with Holmes responding with a right uppercut and a straight right hand. Norton landed a right hand and uppercut at the end of the round to punctuate his dominance in the 14th.

“Norton was aggressive and kept coming. That night, I figured out how tough he was. After Earnie Shavers, he was the second hardest puncher I ever fought. He fought like a champ,” recalled Holmes.

If the 13th round was Holmes’ best of the fight and the 14th was Norton’s, the 15th was about to be one of the greatest in heavyweight championship history. With celebrities Chevy Chase and Sylvester Stallone cheering on the action, Norton picked up where he left off in the 14th, by connecting with a big right hand early in the round. Holmes responded with a right uppercut, left hook, and left jab. Holmes landed a right hand and Norton responded with an effective jab and looping right hand. Holmes landed a left and a right and Norton hit Holmes with a left hook to the body and head and a right uppercut.

Both fighters continued to trade as the fight neared its conclusion. Norton hit Holmes with a right hand that knocked out Homes’ mouthpiece. Holmes landed a right, left, right combination as he came on strong in the closing seconds. After the back and forth tilt was over, Hall of Fame broadcaster “Colonel” Bob Sheridan reflected on what he had just seen. “I’ve broadcasted over 50 championship fights and I can’t recall a better fight showing heart.”

With both fighters believing they had won, it was time to go to the scorecards. This fight was so close, only one point separated the fighters on the judges’ scorecards. All three judges scored the bout 143-142, two for Holmes, making him the new WBC heavyweight champion, by a split decision. The Associated Press scored it 143-142 in favor of Norton.

Holmes reflected on what a difficult opponent Norton was. “I didn’t think I would win the fight because people knew Norton. I didn’t expect that I would get a decision. He was all muscle. He was so strong. He was tough to fight. He always came forward.”

Matchmaker Ron Katz remembered the head to head battle as among the best in heavyweight title history. “It was a brutal fight. Norton had an amazing intensity, a will to win. In the 15th round, it was like the first round. This fight validated the legend of Larry Holmes. Holmes was a great fighter. It was an incredible fight. It was a you hit me, I hit you kind of fight.”

Holmes’ title winning effort against Norton was his fondest memory in the sport of boxing. “A lot of people said I would never be heavyweight champion. I won the title and celebrated being heavyweight champion of the world. They said you can’t make it, Larry. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be champion.”

Ken Norton and Larry Holmes were made for each other. Their styles made for one of the most entertaining fights in heavyweight history. The only downside following that magical June night was that we never had the opportunity to see these two warriors go at it again.

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  1. Don from Prov 10:58am, 02/23/2016

    Great time-machine article—

    Norton/Holmes was one of the best HW title fights I ever watched

  2. tuxtucis 12:28am, 02/22/2016

    @Eric: I disagree, I think Norton lost his fight vs Holmes and his second fight vs Ali. I think he was robbed in his third fight with Ali, but I think too Young was no less robbed in his fight with Norton.

  3. Pete The Sneak 11:31am, 02/21/2016

    Yeap, totally agree Eric…One of the Best give & take heavyweight scraps ever…

  4. Eric 07:41am, 02/21/2016

    CHRISTOPHER WALKEN—THE LION SPEECH YOUTUBE. Too bad that Norton didn’t have Walken in his corner that night. After this speech, Norton would have taken Holmes out in the 15th. teehee.

  5. Eric 07:19am, 02/21/2016

    Great fight, still remember watching it on good old network television. Norton was lucky enough during his career to notch a couple of close decisions like Young & Ledoux, but he was better known for being the victim of bad decision calling. IMO, Norton beats Ali 3 out of 3, and he wins the Holmes fight by a close decision. I think Norton aged 5 years as soon as this decision was announced. Had the decision gone to Norton instead of Holmes, Norton would have probably gone on to make several successful title defences had he fought the same opposition as Larry. Norton could have surely avoided Shavers considering Holmes had all but pitched a shutout against Earnie only a few months prior to the Holmes fight. Norton should have been given an immediate rematch instead of having to fight Shavers in an eliminator. The history of boxing could have been entirely different had this decison went for Norton instead of Holmes. One of the best heavyweight title scraps of all time.

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