SEPTEMBER 27, 1976
He may say he's semiretired, but 60-year-old former heavyweight champion Ken Norton stays on the go with acting classes, appearances at sports memorabilia conventions and the occasional speaking engagement. And when he isn't making a commercial, signing autographs for $25 to $50 a pop or recounting his ring exploits at a fund-raiser, he enjoys horsing around with his six grandchildren at his home in Dana Point, Calif.—thankful for every second he spends with them.
In February 1986, while driving home late at night from a fund-raiser, Norton was nearly killed when he lost control of his car and crashed on a Santa Monica Freeway on-ramp, suffering a severely fractured skull. The man whose powerful punch had broken Muhammad Ali's jaw in winning a 12-round decision in 1973 and who had starred in the movie Mandingo two years later was left partially paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak. "Everything stopped," he says. "My head was split in two."
Norton remained in a Los Angeles hospital for almost three weeks and then spent six months in a wheelchair at the start of an arduous rehabilitation. He was in speech therapy for more than a year. Now he walks slowly his speech is only slightly slurred and he has regained most of his memory.
He vaguely recalls the highly publicized feud in the early 1990s with his son Ken Jr., an NFL linebacker who won Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. Norton Sr. blames his mental state at the time for the disagreement over his son's interracial marriage "I wasn't able to reason, " he says "Things are great now" After father and son watched Ken Jr.'s eight-year-old daughter Sabrina at a track meet Ken Sr. declared "She was superior running against 11-and 12-year-olds It's in the genes"
Norton was a high school football, track and basketball standout in Jacksonville, Ill., before enlisting in the Marines at 19, in 1963-In the corps he learned to box, and in '67—while living as a penniless, divorced 24-year-old father—he turned pro. He won 29 of his first 30 fights but didn't strike it rich until after that first of three memorable bouts with Ali. Norton lost the rematch by a split decision six months later and the third bout by unanimous decision in '76, a fight many believed Norton deserved to win. Norton briefly held the WBC heavyweight title after it was stripped from Leon Spinks in '77 but he lost his first title defense to young Larry Holmes. It was Norton's last significant fight and he retired in 1981 with a 42-7-1 record.
In his 2000 autobiography, Going the Distance, Norton tells of putting his life back together after the accident, which ruined his dreams of film stardom. "God has blessed me," he says. "I could have ended up a vegetable. Instead I came back, slowly. I don't expect to become a superstar, but I'm right here, doing my thing."