ALAMEDA _ When Muhammad Ali passed away Friday, the memories came to Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. in a rush.
His first thoughts were of being a 6-year-old kid, sitting in a room at the LaJolla Village Inn with his grandmother. His father, Ken Norton Sr., was fighting Ali at the nearby San Diego Sports Arena on March 31, 1973.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Norton said Tuesday in an interview with the Bay Area News Group. “My father didn’t allow me to go to the fights, so we had to sit around and wait for the news to get back to the hotel. We finally got the news that he had won, that he had broke (Ali’s) jaw . . . it was one of the most exciting times of my life.”
It turned out to be a life-changing experience for father and son. Ali and Norton would fight twice more, with each one as close as the split-decision win awarded to Norton in the first bout.
Ali, a 5-to-1 favorite, entered the ring in their first bout wearing a robe furnished by Elvis Presley, hoping to get in position for a rematch with Joe Frazier to capture the heavyweight title.
Ken Norton Sr. was 29-1, but had no opponents of note and an eighth round knockout loss to Jose Luis Garcia, a fight in which he hit the canvas twice.
“He was kind of a tune-up for Ali in between fights, and it was considered one of the biggest mismatches,” Norton said. “It was early in his career, and he was really fortunate Ali agreed to fight him. And at that point, my father was in the best shape of his life.”
Ken Sr. was a single father at the time, working at a Ford plant during the day, training at night. He would occasionally leave Ken Jr. with neighbors to make sure his son would get a good meal.
“There were so many things we didn’t have,” Ken Jr. said. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I was always begging him for a bike. We were never able to get one. I was begging him, `Dad, can we have a home?’ After the fight, he became a contender.”
Ken Jr. got his bike, Ken Sr. bought a home in Carson, and the nobody had become a contender who also happened to develop a friendship with the most famous person on the planet.
“He and my father became real good friends, competitors that came to respect one another,” Norton said. “We were very thankful for the start that he gave us.”
Ken Jr. met Ali on a handful of occasions, finding him to be “very kind, very approachable and playful. He used to do magic tricks, showing us how he could levitate off the ground. Always smiling, asking how we were doing. Even now my sister is best friends with one of his daughters. Our families were intertwined like that.”
When Ken Sr. was in a serious auto accident in 1986 and wasn’t expected to survive, Ali spent two days visiting with him at the hospital. By the time Ken Sr. died after a series of strokes in 2013, Ali, stricken with Parkinson’s Syndrome, couldn’t speak out but reached out to Ken Jr. and family through his wife Lonnie.
Ken Jr. understands his father not wanting to see him fight, but as he became older and an athlete, they watched tapes of the Ali bouts together.
“I kind of talked them through with him. I just wanted to see what my father had,” Norton said. “He was athletic, he was long, he was quick, he had intensity, he was smart. I see a lot of carryover between boxing and football, so I understand what he went through.”
Norton takes pride in the fact that his father fought 39 rounds with Ali that were nearly dead even. Many ringside observers felt that Ken Sr. had won their third bout, which was given to Ali by an extremely close unanimous decision.
“(My father) arguably won all three of them,” Norton said. “As great as Ali was, my father was the one guy who was able to stand toe to toe with him. It’s something I’m very proud of.”
If styles make fights, Norton’s style was always troublesome for Ali.
“He felt he had a really good job. Ali really used his jab, and my father was one of the few people who fought Ali who was out-jabbing him, really sticking his arm out there,” Norton said. “When you listened to Ali talk, he thought Norton fought awkward. He felt off-balance. Ali wasn’t quite sure how to ht him because he covered up well.”
Norton had also sparred with Frazier, and borrowed some tactics from the first person to beat Ali.
Boxing is very much a part of Norton’s philosophy when it comes to motivating his defense.
Every Raiders defensive scheme is named for a heavyweight champion.
“We have Tyson, we have Holyfield, we have Ali, we have Foreman, we have Frazier,” Norton said.
He’s even incorporated a “Fury,” named after Tyson Fury, currently a heavyweight champ from the United Kingdom.
Last season, his first as a coordinator, Norton set up the Raiders season as a 16-round bout.
“I would show them a championship round (from a boxing match) and use each game as a round,” Norton said. “We’d talk about what it took to get through that round, the grit, the smarts, the toughness, the defense, the aggression. All the things it takes to get through a championship round.”
The Norton-Ali trilogy
Results of the three bouts between Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali:
March 31, 1973, Sports Arena, San Diego: Norton by split decision, 12 rounds
Sept. 10, 1973, The Forum, Inglewood: Ali by split decision, 12 rounds
Sept. 28, 1976, Yankee Stadium, New York City: Ali by unanimous decision, 15 rounds