Sparked by the prime Mike Tyson’s first heavyweight championship reign, Hip Hop music has had a close association with professional boxing over the past 25 years.
Rappers identify with fighters, who are pumped up by (and often make their ring walks to) Hip Hop music. However, few rappers are as obsessed with the fight game as R.A. The Rugged Man, an unapologetic hardcore boxing fan who’s got a lot of love for the history and old-school players of the sport.
One of R.A.’s favorite fighters is Ken Norton, the former heavyweight champ who fought the all-time great likes of Muhammad Ali (three times, officially going 1-2 in closely contested distance bouts but winning all three bouts in the eyes of many observers), Larry Holmes and George Foreman; as well as many top contenders of the 1970s, such as Jerry Quarry, Duane Bobick, Jimmy Young, Earnie Shavers and Scott LeDoux. Norton was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
R.A. spoke with Norton for an as-yet unpublished book on boxing. It is reprinted here with the rapper/writer’s permission. (There will be a few other Q&As from R.A. this week, so enjoy!)
R.A.: A lot of fans believe the 1970s was the peak, the golden era, of heavyweight boxing and you were a big part of that. How do you compare the ‘70s to other eras?
Ken Norton: In Joe Louis’s day they were slow and they trotted around. In our era, Ali was a boxer, man, very quick. And now a days, fighters are bigger and stronger, but in my opinion the fighters in our era, in the 70s, were the greatest group of fighters ever assembled.
R.A.: What round in your first fight with Ali did you break his jaw?
Norton: The last round.
R.A.: Really? Most people think it was early in the fight, like the second round.
Norton: If you view the fight film they talk about Ali’s doing this, Ali’s doing that, he kept boxing and moving well. But in the last round I hit him with a left hook and he became very defensive. The break in the jaw was an inch and a half long and he was being hit throughout the fight. If you are in that much pain, the mind would shut off. I think the pain would get you. But Ali and I at the present time are very good friends, he’s a very good man and I respect him.
R.A.: What’d you think about the $100 million Michael Mann-produced “ALI” movie starring Will Smith? I thought it was disrespectful in that they completely ignored the fact that you even existed.
Norton: Well, the movie was not too factual and that’s why it didn’t last. I was a negative part of Ali’s career, so in a way I was upset because they didn’t put it in, but then again I understood. I went to the “ALI” premiere and before I went in, I did interviews with the writers who were outside, but when the movie was over and I was barely mentioned, I walked right by them. I give the movie ALI a “two.”
R.A.: Jimmy Young is a fighter from that era who you fought but doesn’t get much mention. He beat George Foreman. A lot of folks think he deserved the decision against Muhammad Ali. What were your thoughts of him?
Norton: Jimmy Young was very good. When he fought Ali, forget the scoring, he beat Ali. When I fought Jimmy Young, I didn’t try to hit him in the head, which you couldn’t; he was too quick, he was too agile; he was too smart. If you went to the body you could fight him, but go for the head like Ali did and you would never hit him.
Norton: That’s a good question, they both hit hard. When I was hit by those guys I didn’t have a monitor in my butt so I can‘t really tell you exactly, but they both punch well.
R.A.: Duane Bobick was heavily hyped and favored to beat you. He came into your fight with a record of 38-0 with 32 knockouts. Were you surprised how easily you took him out the first round?
Norton: I’m not surprised I beat the man, I am surprised he didn’t last very long. When we fought he was favored because Eddie Futch was his trainer and he was undefeated. I wanted to beat him bad because he was supposed to be the next “Great White Hope” and Eddie was my trainer for a long time and I really respect him, but he wanted Bobick to win and he said he would beat me. But I was proving to Eddie Futch that he was wrong. And that he taught me too well.
R.A.: When did you decide to become an actor? And how did you get the starring role in “Mandingo”?
Norton: Dino DeLaurentis, the producer, called my manager. I didn’t know if I wanted to do it, but then I figured I’d try it out because I’d need something to do after I retired.
R.A.: The director of “Drum” (the 1976 sequel to “Mandingo”) hinted to me that there was real-life screwing during the filming. Is that true?
Norton: What do you mean “real life screwing?” You mean sex? (Laughs) that’s a cold question. Well lemme just put it this way, I am not an angel. And there were some beautiful girls on the set, the extras, the stars, and I’m only human.
R.A.: How about actresses like Brenda Sykes or Pam Grier (both of whom starred in “Drum”)?
Norton: (does a playful “I’m innocent” type whistle) How can I put this nicely? I dated Brenda, and I did…(cuts himself off)… I was Pam Grier’s friend. How’s that? Is that a nice way to put it? But I think that my boxing career would have been much better and a little longer if I had not had so many women.
R.A.: Do you think you left the best of Kenny Norton in the ring against Larry Holmes? It was your last great ring performance.
Norton: I think so, yes. The third fight with Ali, I trained hard. After that loss, which I don’t think I truly lost, with the exception of the Larry Holmes fight I didn’t train anymore the way I should’ve. My last two or three fights I didn’t train. But for the Larry Holmes fight I trained like a madman and I don’t think that Larry actually beat me. I think it was a very close fight and that I won by at least a split decision. Being the champion you don’t lose those kinds of fights. In my head I lost because Larry was promoted by Don King.
R.A.: You had a near-fatal car wreck and were lucky to survive. Tell us about that.
Norton: It was 1986. At first they said I would die. I was paralyzed for about a year and a half. I couldn’t speak. I’m still a bit hammered, when I try to walk I have a limp, and my voice is changed. A whole lot has changed, and the only reason I can think of that I didn’t expire, was because God had something left for me to do. There was a little girl playing in her backyard at 10:30 at night. She saw the car, went in and told her parents, and they called the police. Why was she playing out there 10:30 at night? I just know this was God’s way to tell me that I wasn’t living the correct life that he wanted me to live.
R.A.: Where do you put yourself on the list of all-time great heavyweights?
Norton: Well… I don’t think I am the greatest, although I think I’ve proved in my fights when I trained that I am pretty good.
R.A.: Come on, Ken. You were more than pretty good. You were competitive with the best in the deepest heavyweight division in history. Ali and Holmes are two of the greatest heavyweights in history and you beat Ali and gave Larry all he could handle.
Norton: Thank you, sir.
R.A.: You had a hell of a ride, Ken?
Norton: I enjoyed it.
Photos / The Ring
R.A. The Rugged Man is a rapper, filmmaker and journalist. Check out his latest album Legends Never Die, which goes on sale April 30. Follow him on Twitter @RAtheRuggedMan, visit his Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/RA-The-Rugged-Man-Official-Page/180800567216, and official website: http://ratheruggedman.net/