Ken Norton Jr. certainly has what it takes to be a boxer. Maybe even heavyweight champion of the world, like his father.
He’s strong and he’s quick and, at 6-2 and 222 pounds, he has the desired solid, compact build. He even has the long arms and the big, heavy hands.
Ken Norton Jr. also has the champion’s attitude, a pervading, unmistakable quiet confidence. He’s a man of few words, but he is not shy. His eyes will meet eyes and lock in, unwavering, as he studies the person before him and concentrates on the subject at hand.
He has the intelligence and the class that separate the ring’s elite athletes from the thugs.
All the right tools.
But Ken Norton Jr. is not a boxer. He’s a linebacker, a sophomore at UCLA, and he’s preparing to play Iowa in the Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day.
Never did he even consider being a boxer. No Golden Gloves. Nothing.
“My dad fought for the money, but he always said that he wouldn’t want his kids to have to do that,” Norton said.
That’s plenty of explanation for anyone familiar with the life of a boxer.
Of course that discounts the excitement of fight night, the glare of the international spotlight, the blare of a trumpet fanfare that accompanies Rocky to the ring.
But it’s much more realistic, and it’s coming from a kid who knows the difference between a Rocky movie and the life of a real heavyweight champion.
Norton never even saw his father fight. He was too young during much of his father’s career. He was just 7 when his dad broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw in two places in a 12-round win at San Diego. But he was 10 when his father challenged--and many say beat--Muhammad Ali in a championship fight at Yankee Stadium that went 15 good rounds and left the title with Ali.
Norton shook his head. No, he didn’t go to that fight, either. “You don’t want to go and see your dad get hit,” he said.
And he added, with a cold edge in his tone, “I could wait to see him come home three days later with his sunglasses on.”
Again, the young Norton has hit the reality of the fight game right on the button with no wasted motion. A fighter--conqueror or conquered--looks much worse the morning after than he does while the adrenaline is still flowing and the TV lights are still shining. The best of them have been known to wear dark glasses to hide swollen, discolored eyes for days after a battle.
A boxer has a tough life.
To that Ken Norton, the original, comments: “Life is tough.”
But he confirms that he did not want his son to have the same life.
“I kept him--and all my children, I have four children now--totally away from my life as a boxer,” Norton said. “I kept my private life and my professional life totally separate. I didn’t want them exposed to the press, the fanfare, any of the people around boxing.
“And I didn’t want my son to box because I didn’t want him to get hurt. I didn’t even let him play football until he was a junior in high school. I wanted to make sure he was big and strong enough before he went out there.”
So the guy who is a linebacker at UCLA now got a late start at football and still became good at it.
In high school, Norton was a running back and linebacker, with the emphasis on running back. He carried the ball 96 times for 840 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior at Westchester High School and came to UCLA with his heart set on carrying the ball for the Bruins.
He had been on campus just a couple of days in August of 1984, and two-a-day practices were just getting under way when Coach Terry Donahue took him aside and asked him to play linebacker instead.
“When he first told me, it came as kind of a shock, even though I had been hearing rumors that it was going to happen,” Norton said. “I had even read in the Daily Bruin that Ken Norton might be moved to linebacker, but I kept thinking, ‘No, no. I want to be a running back.’
“Coach Donahue always says he doesn’t make anybody switch and he gives you an either-or when he says it, but you know that he’s already decided what he wants you to do.
“I took it kind of hard. Not playing much at first was frustrating, too.”
That needs a little perspective. After being a star in high school, anything short of every play of every game feels like not playing much. Norton actually played quite a bit at first, considering that most UCLA freshmen are redshirted and that he was a regular backup player and on the traveling squad.
CBS named him player of the game at Cal in 1984. And after last season, he was co-winner of the team’s award for the most improved player.
This season he was challenging Steve Jarecki for a starting inside linebacker spot when he had to be held out of the first game because of an NCAA rule that was inadvertently violated when he appeared in a family picture that ran in a department store ad featuring his father on Father’s Day.
Even though he was in on more plays than Jarecki this season, finishing fourth on the team with 62 tackles--45 unassisted--and broke up two passes and intercepted one, was named co-most valuable defensive player and was given honorable mention on the All-Pacific 10 team, Norton never did become a starter. He never quite unseated Jarecki, a senior and a very good player in his own right.
The incumbent has the right to that edge. As Ali told the senior Norton after his great fight at Yankee Stadium, “You got to whup the champ.” The decision always goes to the champ.
Just as it had been hard to accept the move to defense, it was hard to accept not being a starter. But, Norton says, “You go forward.”
He says he knows that he’s developing into a defense-minded player now because he gets excited about going out and hitting people and he takes pride in his role. But he stops short of saying that he’s glad for the change, or that it was all for the best--even considering the talent and depth UCLA has at both running back positions.
“I really enjoy carrying the ball, and I’d rather get beat out than have the frustration of not being given the chance to try,” he said. “I’m not going to underestimate myself.”
No one is underestimating Norton.
If he goes on to a pro football career a couple of years from now, no one will be surprised. And there will be no problem with finding a person he can trust to represent him.
Norton Sr. is now in the business of helping athletes handle their finances. The Ken Norton Personal Management Co. represents Ram running back Eric Dickerson, for one.
Having seen both sides, Norton Sr. can say without a doubt that there is a better chance of making some money in football than in boxing.
“You can be one of the 10 best in the world if you’re a boxer and that still doesn’t mean you’ll make any money,” he said. “You have to be in the top five, at least.”
So he’s pleased with his son’s situation. “I’m really proud of him,” Norton said. “I’m thrilled.”
The Nortons are close, closer than most father-son combinations, even those with the same name.
After a divorce when Ken Jr. was just 14 months old, the two were on their own.
“It was difficult, but we got a lot of help from our neighbors, the Talberts,” Norton Sr. said. “We lived in Carson, then, and those people were very good friends to us.”
Norton Jr. remembers staying with the neighbors when his father went off to train for weeks at a time. He doesn’t tell it with any regret. “I was just a kid,” he said. “Kids don’t know. I enjoyed being with those people.”
Asked if he ever got to know his mother, he said, matter-of-factly: “I met her once.”
His father remarried when he was older, but, Norton said: “I never called anyone Mom.”
Which makes Dad all the more important.
What’s it like to have the same name as a former heavyweight champion?
That’s one that Ken Jr. always shrugs off. It’s his name and he’s proud of it. He claims to have no opinion on whether it’s good to be a junior version of a famous person. As he pointed out: “He didn’t know he was going to be famous when he named me.”
But as for whether he would name his own son Ken Norton III, he said: “If I had a son, I’d give him a unique name.”