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Foreman-Norton, 50 Years Later: ‘The Styles Were Just Right For Me’

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No man is invincible. That’s just reality.

But if ever there was a valid time to question that reality, it was on March 26, 1974. Fifty years ago today, the world heavyweight champion George Foreman ran his record to 40-0 (37 KOs) by annihilating Ken Norton in Caracas, Venezuela, in exactly five minutes of ring time, reaching peak invincibility — or at least peak aura thereof.

Foreman was 25 at the time, so for him it was two-thirds of a lifetime ago. But the 75-year-old grandfather of 16 can recall the details of his second-round KO of fellow future Hall of Famer Norton as if the fight happened last week.

“The styles were just right for me,” Foreman reflected. “Norton and Joe Frazier, both of them – it wasn’t that I was that much better, it was just their styles. They were just right for me.”

Fourteen months earlier, in a second-round knockout even more iconic than the Norton win, Foreman had claimed the championship from Frazier in what was considered a stunning upset at the time. And if Foreman’s knockout of Frazier wasn’t the biggest upset of 1973, then that designation had to go to Norton’s jaw-busting split-decision win over Muhammad Ali that March.

Ali would even the score with a split-decision win of his own six months later, but as ‘74 dawned, it was the 30-year-old Norton who was lined up for the next title crack against “Big George” — who in the interim had squashed Puerto Rico’s Jose Roman in a mere two minutes in his first title defense — while Ali waited on the winner.

“The thing about Norton, it wasn’t a fight I was searching for,” Foreman said. “But he was a top contender, so I had to take him. And this guy was in shape – I saw his endurance with Muhammad twice, and I knew it was going to be a tough fight. Or, I thought it was going to be a tough fight. So I got psyched up to fight the best-built guy I ever fought.”

In an era of major heavyweight bouts taking place in far-flung locations from Jamaica to Zaire to the Philippines, this one landed in Venezuela because the government there assured all parties no taxes would be assessed. Foreman was to make $700,000 and Norton $200,000 – and why not take the fight somewhere they could keep every penny?

The night before the fight, though, word began spreading that the Venezuelan government was reneging. Between that and a dispute over who the referee would be, Foreman, at the urging of his trainer and manager Dick Sadler, began playing his own games. He was threatening to pull out with a leg injury.

“That was just a negotiating ploy,” Foreman admitted 50 years later. “Dick Sadler was pretty slick in those days. He told me, ‘All right, we’re going to the press conference, your leg is hurt now, walk like this,’ and I did.”

A Sports Illustrated article published after the fight observed Foreman having switched which “injured” leg he was favoring prior to the fight. Fifty years on, Foreman let out a hearty laugh when told what SI wrote. “They caught it!” he said with delight.

On fight day, the boxers were assured the original tax-free agreement would be honored, American Jimmy Rondeau was appointed referee rather than a Venezuelan official, and the title fight proceeded as planned. Challenger Norton, 30-2 (23 KOs), entered first, wearing blue trunks under a blue robe, bouncing and shaking loose, then briefly having a seat on his stool as he waited for the champ. Foreman’s legs both looked just fine as he entered the ring in his red robe, which he removed to reveal his signature red trunks with blue waistband and white stripes down the sides.

The bell rang, and the first big punch was thrown by Norton – a wild, looping left hand that Foreman ducked under. Norton scored with a few jabs, then the 6’4” champion started landing his own jab. Soon Norton tried loading up on the left hook again, and again Foreman saw it coming all the way and ducked under it.

“It seemed to me coming into the fight that Norton believed in himself — he had fought Ali and he was aggressive, he kept coming at him,” Foreman recalled. “But someone had told him, ‘Don’t do that with George – box him and watch yourself.’ And so I stepped in, and he jabbed a little bit, then threw heavy shots at me. But I made him miss. Made him miss, I remember that, thinking, ‘Boy, he’s trying to get me.’”

Midway through the round, Foreman’s offensive game plan began to reveal itself. He was banging with both hands to Norton’s body, and looking to land heavy right uppercuts.

“What I planned on doing,” Foreman said, “was getting underneath with bodyshots, real hard. I was trying to land the jab, but he was moving away, so I just stalked him — but with counterpunching, you know, a bob here and a weave there. I was doing just about what I had planned on doing.”

Were the bodyshots designed to bring Norton’s arms down, opening him up for power punches to the head?

“No, it wasn’t designed to drop his hands,” he said. “It was designed to really hit him hard and hurt him.”

Despite his insistence all these years later that he didn’t want to fight Norton and that the match-up concerned him, Foreman appeared positively fearless as he gained momentum over the course of the opening round. He was unfazed by a clean left hook Norton landed and unfazed by Ali — turning out not to be a very impartial color commentator on the broadcast — shouting instructions to Norton from ringside.

It was a competitive opening round, but it clearly belonged to the champ.

Norton began the second round jabbing and moving, and he was having success — until all of a sudden he wasn’t.

Foreman landed a long right hand, then a left hook as Norton tried to move away, followed by a right cross and a right uppercut, and another right uppercut that caught him on the tip of the chin. Norton toppled backward until the second rope was holding him up. Foreman landed another right hand as referee Rondeau stepped in to rule a knockdown. Norton never did quite go down at any point in the sequence, but he was still visibly hurt at the end of the eight-count.

“He moved away from me in the ring and I threw a real wide right hand and I caught him on the end of it, and those punches really hurt, and he never did recover from that,” Foreman assessed. “I went on to finish him, but, that was the big shot – the initial wide right hand as he moved to the right.”

When the action resumed, Norton tried to hold, but Foreman landed a right to the temple that sent him flying backward, this time briefly seating him on the bottom rope. Norton popped right back up and Foreman landed a left hook as Rondeau again tried to step in — but this time, no knockdown was called.

The action immediately resumed, and Foreman landed a devastating five-punch sequence – two hooks, a right uppercut, a right cross that had Norton on his way to the canvas, and a left hook that assured his descent. Norton pulled himself most of the way up at the count of seven, but could never fully straighten up or find his bearings, and with Rondeau waffling on what to do, the challenger’s cornermen jumped up on the apron to stop it at an even two minutes of the second round.

What became known as the “Caracas Caper”, however, was far from over. Both Foreman and Norton were stopped at the airport and not permitted to leave until they posted bonds for the tax money the Venezuelan authorities were again insisting they pay.

Supposedly the taxes were to be 18 per cent of their purses. But somehow Norton had to pay $47,000 — nearly a quarter of his purse — before he was able to leave the country on March 29. Foreman endured a shakedown to the tune of $300,000 and was stuck there a full week, until April 2.

“I loved Venezuela,” he recalled. “Enjoyed the food. Had a good time. But when someone tells you that you can’t leave, it turns into an ugly place, and I didn’t like that.” 

Waiting on the other side, however, was a payday to help erase the pain – a $5 million guarantee to face Ali in Zaire.

At ringside after Foreman’s destruction of Norton, Ali spoke of how “if a man can stay out of the way for five rounds, stick him, move, stay out of range, be in good shape, he’ll retire George Foreman. … Stick him with left jabs and right crosses, tie him up, and box him, and you’ll retire him.”

The Norton fight marked Foreman’s eighth in a row that ended within two rounds. Knowing what we know about what happened seven months later in “The Rumble in the Jungle”, it’s impossible not to wonder if all those quick KOs set him up for disaster against Ali.

“You know, I had been a boxer, and I forgot about that,” Foreman said. “I knocked Joe Frazier and Roman out pretty easy. So I just abandoned whatever boxing skills I had and started trying to knock ’em out in two or three rounds. No one explained to me that, man, nobody had knocked out Muhammad Ali.

“So that’s what set it up. Me winning those fights by knockout and then believing the hype — George can knock you out. I should have kept with my boxing skills. You know, with Joe Frazier, I stopped, blocked, spun him, and everything. Good boxing. But with Muhammad, I went right after him. No playing around. And he didn’t fit the style that Norton and Frazier did. And the guy was willing to take it. One time, I hit him hard, he looked at me like, ‘Yeah, it hurt. But so what?’

“After the Norton fight, I abandoned anything about skills. I went straight for knockouts.”

There was a remarkable symmetry, at least mathematically, to Foreman’s career. He ultimately had 81 bouts. Exactly 40 came before the defeat by Ali in Zaire, and exactly 40 came after.

The second-round knockout of Norton in Caracas was the last of those first 40. It marked the peak of Foreman’s perceived invincibility. And even he was beginning to buy into it.

No man is actually invincible. But 50 years ago today, George Foreman drew about as close to that adjective as any athlete possibly could.

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