If a navigator were to plot the career course of Kenneth Howard Norton, the chart would show a seemingly aimless path of zigzags and curves. This is because for most of the journey Norton wanted to be something other than a fighter. Yet here he is, a man with a piece of the world heavyweight championship, and this Friday night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, he defends his WBC title for the first time, facing undefeated and largely unknown Larry Holmes. Norton sees the fight as a screenplay.
"There is a movie script in here somewhere," he was saying at his secluded and serene training base, the unserenely named Massacre Canyon Inn at Gilman Hot Springs, Calif. "It was written a long time ago. The names of the players: Norton and Holmes. The supporting cast. The action, every punch, every small drama. And, at the end, the name of the winner. By a knockout. Or a decision. The end is preordained. It is our destiny. Mine and Larry's.
"I have to believe now that fighting was my destiny," says the 32-year-old ex-Marine. "What else could you call it? Nothing was planned. I never intended to be a fighter. In the Corps I only started boxing because I was unhappy with the football team and I was bored with getting up for reveille every day. As a pro I was just using boxing as a means to meet the right people. I hoped they would open the right doors for me. Boxing wasn't an end, it was a means to an end. When they pay you only $300 for a 10-rounder—and it is your 30th fight and you are pushing 29 and raising a young son by yourself—well, you don't sit around dreaming about being a champion. Not if you are realistic. And hungry. What you think about is finding a good job and starting a new career."
Norton had just showered after a particularly hard workout, and now, dressed in slacks and a T shirt, he sprawled across the king-sized bed in his motel room. From the window he could see his eggshell white Cartier-edition Lincoln Mark IV Continental parked under a nearby copse of dogwood trees. At his ranch house in the exclusive La Dera Heights section of Los Angeles there is a buckskin-colored customized Sting Ray, a customized van, a white Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce and a 1978 Ford station wagon. And he has on order a $50,000 Clenet; only 300 will be made.
Norton is a millionaire, perhaps more than once. Certainly after the Holmes fight he won't be any poorer. His purse for this first title defense will be $2.7 million. For his last previous fight, the 15-round title-elimination win over Jimmy Young—which led to Norton's being named champion by the WBC—he earned $1.5 million. He collected small fortunes for his starring roles in the movies Mandingo and Drum. "Kenny will never need for anything," says Bob Biron, his manager, friend and financial overseer. "All his money is tied up in widows' and orphans' funds. It's safe."
But Norton will not permit himself to forget the time, not many years ago, when he had pressing need for so simple a thing as half a gallon of milk for his son Kenny Jr.
Looking out the window at his Lincoln, Norton became reflective. He thought back to Dec. 13, 1972, the night he fought Charlie Reno 10 tough rounds before 700 people in San Diego. He was paid $300. His professional record was 29-1. "Those were the desperate years. Life was a monster," Norton said. "Once I even planned on robbing a liquor store. I mean, I was going to walk in, hit the dude in the mouth and rip him off. That's how big a monster my life was then. But I could never rob anyone. And for that I can only thank God for the way I was brought up."
Ken Norton was brought up in Jacksonville, Ill., a farming community of 20,000 people near Springfield in the central part of the state. He was born there on Aug. 9, 1945, the only child of middle-income parents: John, a small man, 5'6" but feisty, an engineer in the fire department, and Ruth, a hospital therapist. He admits that they spoiled him badly.
Norton was a gifted athlete early on. He first won public notice in the second grade when he won five events at a Junior Olympic meet. From that point he just became better, mostly without trying. "Sometimes I think it all came too easily for me," he says. "When you are always bigger and faster and stronger than everyone else, there is never anyone to push you. You never really find out how good you can become."
By the time he was a freshman entering Jacksonville High, where he became a hometown legend in football, basketball and track, Norton had grown to 5'11" and 156 pounds. When he was graduated in 1961, he was 6'3" and 198. And by that time he had a physique of the kind cast in bronze and pedestaled in an art museum.