Then Norton takes off in an unexpected direction. "You don't want to use your helmet, though," he says. "I see guys who show off their helmets with these scars and different color paint streaks on them. They say, 'This means I'm a tough guy.' They're fools. Hey, I'm a psych major. I never gave any thought at all to becoming a boxer. I didn't want to end up with...Parkinson's disease." Norton laughs with a snort, his great jaw jutting out like that of a gargoyle.
"That was what he had to learn," says Donahue. "To revel in it. He had to learn to take on the isolation running plays, right at him—to feed off the contact. He's been toughened. I don't think he ever disliked contact. I just don't think he understood it."
"I never allowed him to see me fight, not in person, not even on television," says Ken Norton, the father. "I never wanted him to see me get hurt in the ring. I didn't want to leave him with a scar."
Long before Norton broke Ali's jaw, he had already played fullback in high school in Jacksonville, Ill., and for two years at Northeast Missouri State. Norton enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1963 and served part of his hitch at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, where his extraordinary physique, as much as anything, led him into the ring. Norton wasn't a prizefighter at heart, but he looked the part. "And I never lifted a weight," says Norton. "Never in my life. Not until after I left boxing."
While a Marine, Norton got married, but the marriage lasted only two years. After the divorce became final, Norton and his wife agreed that he would raise his 14-month-old son and namesake.
"When Jeanette and I got divorced, there were no hard feelings," says Norton. "No real hard feelings. I took Kenny because he was my son, and I loved him. She's a good lady, but she could not have loved him more than I did. I learned to change diapers, feed him. I didn't have to learn to love him."
Norton's first professional fight was in 1967 when he knocked out Grady Brazell. After that he fought 29 times in five years, winning 28, before he got the chance at Ali, who was then wearing only the NABF heavyweight crown. Ken Jr., six years old at the time, stayed with friends in Carson, Calif., the night of that fight. During other fights he would be with his grandparents at their home in Jacksonville. Occasionally, Norton would take his son to a training site, like the Gilman Hot Springs resort near San Jacinto, Calif.
"I never saw him fight," says Ken Jr. "He made sure of that. But I've seen my dad wake up at four in the morning to run. I saw what he had to do. I saw you had to hurt. You had to sacrifice. Eat certain things. Have a certain attitude. Be a certain way. It was drilled into me early. He didn't like how dangerous it was, how hard it was. He said it just wasn't a good life."
Ken Jr. has only a vague recollection of the night his father beat Ali. "My father never made a big deal out of it," he says, "so I had no reason to."
Norton's ring career would last eight more years, propelled by that one incredible upset, two more stirring fights against Ali—both losses—and his perfect body. In March 1978 he was handed the WBC title when new champion Leon Spinks withdrew from a promised fight with Norton to give Muhammad Ali a rematch. Norton's reign was shortlived; ten weeks later he lost the crown in an epic 15-round war with Larry Holmes. Finally, Gerry Cooney annihilated Norton in 54 seconds in May 1981. He retired from the ring with all his faculties, to a future that seemed to offer vast possibilities.