LAS VEGAS — Former heavyweight champion Ken Norton Sr., who beat Muhammad Ali and later lost a controversial decision to the boxing legend in Yankee Stadium, died Wednesday at a care facility. He was 70.
Ken Norton Jr., a linebackers coach with the Seahawks, confirmed the death to the Associated Press before handing the phone to his wife, too distraught to talk.
Mr. Norton, the only heavyweight champion never to win the title in the ring, had been in poor health the last several years after suffering a series of strokes, a friend of the fighter said.
"He's been fighting the battle for two years," said Gene Kilroy, Ali's former business manager. "I'm sure he's in heaven now with all the great fighters. I'd like to hear that conversation."
Mr. Norton, who started boxing when he was in the Marines, had few fights of note when he was selected to meet Ali. But he broke Ali's jaw in their first bout, winning a split decision in 1973 in a non-title fight in San Diego. Six months later, Ali won a split decision. They met for a third time Sept. 28, 1976, at Yankee Stadium and Ali narrowly won to keep his heavyweight title.
The next year Mr. Norton won a heavyweight title eliminator and was declared champion by the World Boxing Council. But on June 9, 1978, he lost a 15-rounder to Larry Holmes in what many regard as one of boxing's epic heavyweight bouts. Mr. Norton was never champion again.
"Kenny was a good, good fighter. He beat a lot of guys," said Ed Schuyler Jr., who covered many of Mr. Norton's fights for the Associated Press. "He gave Ali fits because Ali let him fight coming forward instead of making him back up."
Few gave Mr. Norton, who possessed a muscular, sculpted body, much of a chance against Ali in the first fight. But his awkward style and close-in pressing tactics confused his opponent, and Mr. Norton broke Ali's jaw on the way to the decision. Kilroy said after the fight Mr. Norton visited Ali at the hospital where he was getting his broken jaw wired. Ali, he said, told him he was a great fighter and he never wanted to fight him again. Instead, they would meet two more times, including the final fight at Yankee Stadium that went 15 rounds, won by Ali in a decision.
Mr. Norton (42-7-1, 33 knockouts) later became an actor, appearing in several movies.
Mr. Norton was badly injured in a near-fatal car accident in 1986. He recovered but never regained his full physical mobility.
Kilroy said Mr. Norton was visited at the veteran's hospital in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson by former fighters, including Mike Tyson, Earnie Shavers and Thomas Hearns.