Thom Loverro: Larry Holmes vs. Ken Norton was an unheralded classic

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Sports,Thom Loverro

As much as we pine for the glory days of heavyweight boxing in the 1970s, there really were only a handful of truly great heavyweight title fights during that decade.

Three of them involved Muhammad Ali: Ali vs. Joe Frazier, the "Fight of the Century" in 1971; Ali vs. George Foreman, the "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974; and Ali-Frazier III, the "Thrilla in Manila" in 1975.

There was one more that often flies on the radar of historical perspectives, but it was a classic battle that featured one of the greatest 15th rounds we've ever seen in heavyweight championship boxing -- Larry Holmes vs. Ken Norton, which took place in Las Vegas 35 years ago Sunday.

Holmes spent much of a great heavyweight title reign in the shadow of Ali. He held a version of the title from 1978 to 1985 and successfully defended his title 20 times, second only to Joe Louis.

But he started out as a small time heavyweight from Easton, Pa., boxing in places like Scranton in four- and six-round bouts, and also as a sparring partner for several years to Ali.

Holmes, though, built up a record that finally couldn't be ignored, and the opportunity came to fight Norton, who had been summarily awarded the World Boxing Council title when Leon Spinks was stripped of it for fighting a rematch against Ali.

Norton had three wars with Ali, though not classics. He won the first fight, breaking Ali's jaw, lost the rematch and then lost a controversial decision to Ali in the third fight that most observers believed Norton won.

"It was my proudest fights," Holmes, 63, said from his Easton office. ""I became somebody. I became heavyweight champion of the world. I was no longer Larry Holmes from the projects, Larry Holmes from the ghetto. I was Larry Holmes, heavyweight champion of the world."

Holmes had hurt his left bicep the week before the fight, but was fearful if he pulled out, he would not get another shot. "I grabbed it because I didn't know if they would give me another chance, or at least pushed my shot back a year or so," he said

They battled evenly for 14 rounds. Then after the 15th round started, Norton nailed Holmes with an uppercut that sent Holmes' mouthpiece flying. Holmes was hurt, but he recovered and then nearly knocked Norton out before the bell rang to end the fight.

The round gave Holmes the split decision, and the championship.

"I couldn't let him see what happened to me," Holmes said of his battle back in the 15th round. "There were a lot of people rooting against me. I had to prove them wrong.

"I was not supposed to be champion," Holmes said. "My legs were too small, they said I couldn't punch, so I had to prove to them that I could be a champion."

Examiner

columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Thom Loverro

Sports columnist
The Washington Examiner