A full transcript of an interview with Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. on the relationship and the three fights between his late father Ken Norton Sr. and Muhammad Ali:
Q: Muhammad Ali was one of the biggest personalities in the world, not only in sports, and a part of his legacy were the three bouts with your father. What were your thoughts when you heard Friday Ali had passed away?
Norton: I got a lot of thoughts. Muhammad himself has had a big, really big impact on my life and my father’s life. As you know, we fought him three times, and over those three times he and my father became real good friends, competitors that came to really respect one another. Going back to the first fight, my father was just a Marine no one knew about. Early in his career, he was kind of a tune-up for Ali in between his big fights and it was considered one of the biggest mismatches. Before that, we lived in San Diego, we didn’t have much. He was a single parent, just me and him, and there are so many things we wanted that we didn’t have. It was kind of early in his career, and he was really fortunate that Ali agreed to fight him. And at that point my father was in the best shape of his life. I just remember, I was about six years old at the time, and we were in the LaJolla Village Inn in San Diego, I remember it like it was yesterday, my grandmother and I. 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 but we finally got the news that he had won, that he had broke his jaw. In my young life at that time, six years old, it was one of the most exciting times in my life. Before that, we were just on a one bedroom apartment. I was always begging him for a bike. Was never able to get one. I was always begging him, one day, dad, can we have a home? After that fight we got a home, we moved to Carson after that. And he became a contender at that point. So it was very pivotal. I think 10 months after that, Ali wanted to avenge it, so he took another fight. The second one was in Inglewood California at the Forum. That was the second of the fights, where he really became a contender, and gave him the opportunity to change our life. And my father really took advantage of the opportunity. Over the years, they became really good friends over a period of time. And again, we were very thankful for the start that he gave us.
Q: Did you meet him?
Norton: Oh yeah, I’ve met him on several occasions. My father had a real bad accident in 1986, a really bad car wreck. He wasn’t supposed to survive and Ali came to visit him in the hospital for a couple of days. And then just on different times they’ve run into each other when I was with him. He’s very kind, always had magic tricks, and very approachable.
Q: You mentioned the magic tricks, was he playful and funny to be around like everyone says?
Norton: Playful, he found a way to levitate off the ground. He was always showing us how he could levitate and do magic coming off the ground. Smiling, always asking what we were doing. Even now my sister is best friends with one of his daughters, so our families are intertwined like that.
Q: Your father purposely kept you away from the gym, didn’t let you watch fights and didn’t allow you to play football until you were a junior in high school. But did you go back and watch those Norton-Ali fights on tape?
Norton: Oh yeah, I’ve watched them. Once I became an adult, I went back and watched them with him, kind of talking through them with him. I understand as a young man, or as a kid, you don’t want your kid to see you in the ring getting hit. I totally understood that, being a parent myself. But once I became an athlete myself, I wanted to see just what my father had. So I’d go back and watch him. He was athletic, he was long, he was quick, he had intensity, he was smart. And then I see a lot of carryover between boxing and football. I really understand what he went through. At the same time I see the carry over between football and boxing.
Q: When you went back and watched him _ I mean your father fought him three times and they were all damn near even _ a split decision win, a split decision loss and a close loss. And a lot of people at ringside thought your father won the third bout at Yankee Stadium. What was it like to watch your father be dead even with Muhammad Ali?
Norton: As you watch all the great fights he had with Frazier, he had great fights with Foreman, you watch all of them, and when you watch the three with Norton, I mean, Norton arguably won all three of them. As great as Ali, my father was the one guy who was able to stand toe to toe with him. It’s something I’m so very proud of.
Q: Did Ali reach out when your father passed away?
Norton: Well, he did, he was not able to talk, his family did, yes.
Q: Did you have a favorite bout of Ali’s that didn’t include your dad?
Norton: Well, I grew up a boxing fan, so there’s a lot of his fights than I’m really a fan of. I think the one that I felt that he really had to dig down is the vs. Foreman. I feel that he had to take a lot, really had to think a lot. He had to show a lot of grit and toughness. He had to dig down to a place that not a lot of people can dig down to. He had to take the shots that Foreman was giving to get to the eighth round, just take everything he had, and at that point, Foreman was a beast. Everyone was scared of him. You read up on it and even a lot of people in Ali’s camp figured he was committing suicide to take that fight.
Q: I used to see Foreman train at the Southland Mall in Hayward . . . he was terrifying . .
Norton: Yeah, you see how big and mean and cut-up and tough he was, and the way he destroyed his opponents. I think that fight and the Frazier fight, the third fight when Frazier didn’t come out after the 14th round, those two fights, he really had to dig deep. You like to see the contests where it takes something different, something special. You’ve got have a lot of grit, go to the deepest part of your body to pull it out. It’s the one thing that he separates you from the rest. The thing that makes you `The Greatest.’ There’s a lot of really good athletes, but what makes you the greatest? It’s those performances, like Foreman and Frazier.
Q: What do you think it was about your father that enabled him to think he could beat Muhammad Ali? A guy working at a Ford plant and training after work, raising a son, and not just be content with getting in the ring with Ali to get the payday, but think he could win the fight?
Norton: In my discussions with him, it’s about the confidence. He felt he really had a good jab. Ali really used his jab, and he was one of the few people who fought Ali who was out-jabbing him. Really sticking that arm out there. He had good length in his arm, really knew how to use the jab. When you listened to Ali talk, Norton fought kind of awkward. He kind of felt off-balance. Ali wasn’t quite sure how to hit him because he covered up himself well and my father spent a lot of years sparring with Frazier, so he had a little Frazier defense in him and might have thrown him off a little bit. He didn’t throw the left hook like Frazier but he covered up his body and covered up his face in such a way and had such movement, that he kind of kept Ali off balance.
Q: How often do your players ask about Ali or your father’s bouts with Ali?
Norton: Well, they don’t know it, but they talk about it every day because I’ve named all my defenses after the heavyweight champions. So as we call defenses, we’re naming heavyweight champions every day. So they don’t realize it, we have maybe 10 defenses we call and they’re all named after heavyweight champions. So they’re talking about it every single day. Last year, before every game I would show them a great round of the champions, and use each game that we play every week as a championship round and 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.
Q: So you have a Norton defense, an Ali defense, a Tyson defense, and so on . . .
Norton: We don’t have Norton. I don’t put Norton in that. We have Tyson, we have Holyfield, we have Ali. We have Foreman, we have Frazier. We have Tyson Fury, all the old guys and one of the new guys.