Just over a year before, the world had witnessed Heavyweight champion Larry Holmes dish out a horrific beating to “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. The undefeated Holmes, a former Ali sparring partner, solidified his grip on the heavyweight crown after Ali’s longtime trainer Angelo Dundee refused to allow Ali to enter the 11th round. It was a compassionate decision.
Holmes, who had won the title in September of 1978 via a split decision over Ken Norton, was now the kingpin of the division. As is usually the case in boxing, a young, hungry, up-and-coming challenger was now lurking and had his sights set on Holmes.
It was now Spring in New York City. On May 11, 1981, Madison Square Garden was set to host a Heavyweight fight that would help to further shape the future of the division. It would pit the young challenger Gerry Cooney and the man Holmes beat to win the title, Norton.
Cooney had won two New York Golden Gloves Championships, built a 55-3 amateur record, and turned pro in 1977. Cooney was seen by many as still largely untested. The 24 year old had just scored two brilliant knockout wins over Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young. Although Lyle and Young were past their primes, Cooney looked sharp as both men felt the incredible power in the bazooka left hand of Cooney.
A naturally left-handed fighter, Cooney (24-0, 20 KOs) fought in an orthodox stance. This style provided him with the opportunity to launch an authoritative jab as well as a deadly left hook. The largest criticism of the 6’6″ tall Cooney was that he seldom used his right hand.
On this night, the man many called “Gentleman Gerry” was prepared to face a man many believed would give him the toughest test of his young professional career. That man was Ken Norton.
Norton (42-6-1, 33 KOs) was coming down the home stretch of his hall of fame career. He was pushing for one last run at the title and would have to go through the No. 1 ranked Cooney to get there.
Now 35 years old, Norton had learned to box in the United States Marine Corps. He compiled a 24-2 record in the Marine Corps and won three “All-Marine” Heavyweight titles. Many still consider him the best boxer to ever fight for the Marines. He won a Golden Gloves title in North Carolina and began his professional career in November 1967.
Norton, the former champion and a sparring partner of Joe Frazier, had fought many of the best in his era including Jimmy Young, Earnie Shavers and George Foreman. He also fought Ali three times, the first on March 31, 1973, in which he famously broke Ali’s jaw as early as the second round.
Both fighters weighed in at a ready 225 pounds. This fight would propel the winner and deal the loser a major setback.
The Mecca of Boxing was ready as the fighters made their way to the ring. Norton, ranked sixth in the division, made his way to the ring first. He wore dark blue trimmed with white and looked to be in sensational shape. Randy Gordon of Ring Magazine said that Norton was “possibly in the best shape of his career.”
Cooney, wearing green trimmed with white and red, exited his dressing room next. Many fans in The Garden held signs and cheered wildly as he made his way into the ring.
After ring announcer Jack Lee introduced the fighters, both men met referee Tony Perez for instructions.
HBO aired the fight live as Welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard, Larry Merchant and Barry Tompkins sat ringside to call the night’s action.
Scheduled for 10 rounds, the bell sounded and the action got underway. Both men instantly employed their jab. The height difference was immediately evident. Norton bent at the knees with his right arm crisscrossed high over his chest as he bounced in and out of Cooney’s punching range.
During the first toe-to-toe exchange just seconds into the fight, Tompkins bellowed, “A right hand buckled the knees of Norton! The first punch of the fight buckled Norton’s knees!”
Indeed, Cooney did have a right hand. Leonard and Merchant seemed in awe as Tompkins called the furious action. As Norton tried to punch back, Cooney bullied Norton into the corner. Tompkins continued, “Another left hand scored and again the legs of Norton wobble! Norton is hurt in his own corner.”
Norton, out on his feet, took a brutal barrage of punches, mostly left hands, from Cooney. The left hands came in both hooks and uppercuts to the head and body. As Norton slumped, Cooney reached back and launched a fierce assault that put Norton’s behind on the second rope.
As the bombs continued to land, Norton’s face was a mask of complete bewilderment. He was completely out and was taking a merciless beating.
As Perez jumped in to halt the bombardment, Tompkins finished, “He is not going to get up from this! The fight is over at 54 seconds!”
An ecstatic Cooney was swarmed at mid ring by his team. Norton slumped onto the canvas with his back upright against the ropes, sitting upright in his own corner. The always classy Cooney tried to get in to check on his beaten opponent who was receiving medical attention. He would soon get to his feet and was seated on his stool.
As Leonard and Tompkins began discussing the potential Cooney-Holmes matchup, Merchant caught up with Gentleman Gerry in the ring. Merchant asked if the quick knockout would in any way dampen his victory as some might say Norton couldn’t fight anymore. “It doesn’t matter to me anymore. I had my people here, my fans. We trained hard.”
One year later, Cooney would meet Holmes in the richest fight, at that time, in boxing history. It was also the biggest pay-per-view and closed-circuit production to date.
After the loss to Cooney, Norton retired. Although his last fight was a devastating loss, it did little to dampen his image in the public eye. He fought many of the top Heavyweights of his day and was generally regarded as both highly skilled and dangerous.
During the HBO broadcast, Tompkins quoted New York Post writer Jerry Eisenberg who said, “Destiny has a way of sneaking up on Ken Norton and kicking him in his aspirations.”
On this night in The Garden, that insight couldn’t have been more prophetic.