The bell rings and your 5'11,189-pound opponent comes at you crouching and weaving with his hands up protecting his face as if he's playing a game of peek-a-boo. Once he's almost in range, you throw a jab but suddenly you see a bright light and the floor feels as if it rose and caught up with you. You lay on the ground in a daze. You never saw that left hook coming. It was impossibly fast and landed right on your chin with an explosive effect. Congratulations. You just went a few seconds with Floyd Patterson.
Let's try a different opponent. He has a physique men to this day are jealous of. He stands at 6'3, 220 pounds. The bell rings. You two circle each other a bit. He inches toward you, dragging his right foot.
You throw a few jabs but he blocks them using a weird armadillo defense. You try another jab but before your lands, he's countered you with his own jab right to your face! You're surprised, but you try to jab again and he stuns you with another counter jab square on the nose. You finally say, “The hell with it,” and prepare to throw a mean hook, but he blasts you in the body with a body shot. As you grimace, he hits you in the jaw with a thunderous right hand. As you stagger backward and get caught by the ropes, you feel your jaw is really loose. It's broken. Congratulations. You just went one minute with Ken “The Jawbreaker” Norton.
Ken Norton was difficult to fight because of his scientific approach and countering abilities. If Ken saw your chest flex, he'd know a punch was coming and beat you to it. That's how observant he was. Like Jack Johnson, Ken's whole strategy revolved around countering your mistakes.
Floyd Patterson retired in 1972, around the same time that Ken Norton was beginning to make a presence in boxing. In fact, Norton fought Ali just a year after Patterson did.
But what would have happened if these two fought each other? If there was a time machine and we could put the 1956 Floyd Patterson in the ring with the 1973 Ken Norton, who wins and how?
What's amazing about Patterson is that his looks and demeanor will fool you. He was lean and youthful looking, but possessed a resonant baritone voice you probably wouldn't expect from him. Also due to his small size and speedy style, you probably wouldn't expect an explosive punch from him. This couldn't be further from the truth. Floyd could really pop, but I'll get to that later.
Floyd was one of the first boxers to use Cus D'Amato's infamous peek-a-boo fighting style. With this style, you hold your gloves in front of your face as a defense as you come forward, bobbing and weaving. But the style runs a lot deeper than that. There are angles, footwork, and a set of combinations involved. For this style, Cus also had a number system. Each punch represented a number. His pupils would memorize each number, and string them together in different sequences and combinations, and the result would be pure dynamite.
Most fights begin with two guys feeling each other out with jabs before taking huge risks.
However, this wasn’t always the case when you’re fighting Floyd Patterson. Sometimes, he would charge right out at the opening bell and spring off the mat with his signature “Gazelle Punch” and smash his foe with a fierce left hook. No warning. No setup. Just a brilliant, poetic and explosive left hook.
But Floyd did utilize the jab well. He sometimes would jab, then turn it into a left hook all in one motion. This was a brilliant knockout set-up utilized by Joe Louis that other heavyweight champions would use later on, including Patterson and Smokin’ Joe Frazier. For Patterson, most jabs were a way to help him get inside or a setup for a power punch.
When it comes to hand speed among the heavyweight champions, there are five names always mentioned - Muhammad Ali, Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis, Jack Johnson and Mike Tyson. You could make a case that any of them had the fastest hand speed in heavyweight boxing history.
I can only go by what my eyes tell me. Muhammad Ali had the quickest jab, with Joe Louis being a few hairs behind. Jack Johnson had the quickest defensive hands, often parrying his opponent’s attacks with cat-like reflexes. Lous and Tyson threw the fastest combinations. But it was Floyd Patterson who threw the fastest hooks.
One of the fastest punches I've ever seen on film was Floyd's one-punch knockout of Henry Cooper. It came from out of absolutely nowhere, and there was no chance that poor Cooper saw it coming.
We know Cus used to specialize in throwing punches with “Bad Intentions.” Floyd lacked the killer instinct of Mike Tyson, but like Tyson, he aimed to punch right through you.
His most devastating punch, however, was when he sprung off the mat and smashed Ingemar Johanson with a beautiful left hook. Ingemar went down and out. His left foot was quivering as he lay there unconscious. Anyone that doubts Floyd's power should watch that knockout.
Later in his career, Floyd knocked out Charley Green with a brutal left hook to the body. As Charley slumped to the canvas, Floyd tried to help him up. He definitely lived up to his moniker, “The Gentleman Of Boxing.”
Floyd was most famous for his Gazelle Punch. As the name implies, he would spring high into the air with the grace of gazelle and land his dynamite on his opponent’s chin. Years later, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson, Tommy Morrison and David Tua would sometimes emulate this punch, but no one did it better than Patterson.
Ken "The Jawbreaker" Norton
What’s important is that among all of this great talent, Norton sometimes held his own, proving that he belongs among this special group of heavyweight champions.
Ken started out modestly, as a sparring partner for Joe Frazier. Marvis Frazier told me that Norton once dropped Joe in a sparring session, and that their gym wars were competitive. I had assumed that Joe would beat the crap out of Norton based on their styles (and Norton's chin) but based on Marvis’ testimony, Norton did well, which shows me that Norton was even better than I’d given him credit for. Not many guys could hang in there with a young Joe Frazier.
Larry Holmes told me that Joe cracked one of his ribs, and that his sparring wars with Frazier were among the most brutal sparring sessions of his career. Listen to our interview.
The most brilliant display of Norton’s career was the way he beat Muhammad Ali during their first fight in 1973. Eddie Futch told Norton, “When Ali jabs, you jab with him.” Everytime Ken saw Ali’s chest flex before he threw a jab, Ken through his jab too, countering Ali and breaking his rhythm. Most of the time, his jabs landed right down the pipe. This scored plenty of points for Norton, and kept Ali from finding his rhythm almost all night.
Norton couldn’t jab like Louis or Holmes, but his jab was a straight, almost precise one. Ali, known as one of the most effective jabbers in boxing, was finally getting a taste of his own medicine.
But the icing on the cake was when Norton broke Ali’s jaw. There’s so many conflicting reports on what round Ali’s jaw was broken in. I won’t even venture a guess, but we do know for a fact that when the fight with Norton was over, Ali had a broken jaw and the second loss of his career
But unlike many counter-punchers, Ken could brawl well when he had to. In his battle with Larry Holmes on June 9, 1978, Ken and Larry took each other to the brink. It was exhausting to even watch them. In the end, Larry won the encounter by a point, but it’s a bout that could have just as easily went the other way. Because of this, you could argue that a younger version of Ken would have won it.
Both Patterson and Norton were vulnerable to the heavy-handed sluggers. Floyd was damn near killed by Sonny Liston on two occasions. Norton was easily destroyed by Foreman and Shavers. But throughout their careers, Patterson was down more times than Norton was. I don’t see Norton getting floored seven times in one fight by someone like Ingemar Johanson. That’s one of several reasons I feel that Norton had a better chin than Patterson.
The Power Of The Punch
As I mentioned before, Floyd had the speed to surprise his opponents. He also had fierce accuracy. It was rare that he missed his target. A punch that you don't see coming that lands square on the button is more than capable of knocking you unconscious. Floyd's blows had an explosive impact, but he didn't have the natural, raw power that Norton had.
Norton was a more natural slugger than Patterson. But he obviously wasn't on the level of a Liston, Foreman, etc. If I had to rate his power from a 1-10 with 10 being the highest, he'd probably get a 7 and a half. Ken knocked out a lot of people, but the guys with concrete chins like Holmes and Ali always withstood his punch.
Ken Norton was a tough guy, both mentally and physically. I just can’t say the same about Patterson, though. Under the advice of Cus D’Amato, Patterson shamelessly ducked the menacing Sonny Liston for five years. During both of his championship reigns, Floyd also stayed away from Eddie Machen, Zorra Folley and Cleveland Williams, all of whom were deserving of cracks at the championship.
Instead, Patterson took easy title defenses against guys like Tom McNeely and Hurricane Jackson. Ingemar Johansson was supposed to be another “tomato can” for Patterson to make easy work of, but obviously it didn’t work out this way.
Let me rewind a bit. Cus D'Amato and Floyd Patterson waited for Rocky Marciano to retire before moving Floyd up to heavyweight and challenge for the heavyweight title. Cus wanted to protect his young fighter at all costs. When Marciano hung up the gloves, the only man standing in Floyd's way of the title was the old Mongoose Archie Moore. As predicted, this was an easy fight for Floyd to win. Knockout in round 5.
Now let's fast forward back to 1962. It wasn’t until President John F. Kennedy expressed his wishes to see a Patterson-Liston fight that Floyd finally gave into peer pressure and offered Liston the title opportunity that he deserved for years.
Floyd was paralyzed with fear during both encounters with Sonny Liston. While Patterson doesn’t have the chin to ever survive Liston, he never gave himself a fair chance either. If you watch closely, Floyd was making Liston miss a lot of punches. His bobbing and weaving made him a hard target for Liston to initially hit. Instead of countering all of those missed punches the way Frazier or Tyson would have, Floyd just dodged the punches and waited to be hit. It didn’t take long.
What I’m saying is that if Floyd had thrown counter blows to the body and the chin, he could have given Sonny to think about, or at least made a better fight out of it. Floyd was so embarrassed that he wore disguises in public after the fight. He once said in an elevator that someone casually said, “Hi, Mr. Patterson” while Floyd was decked out in a disguise. Funny.
Given his reputation for getting knocked out by huge punchers, Ken Norton likely would have gone down against Liston too, but he would have been a tougher cookie for Liston to crumble than Patterson was. Muhammad Ali nick-named Patterson “the rabbit” for good reason.
Floyd Patterson accomplished two feats that still stand today. He was the first heavyweight champion to regain the title after losing it. This is something that Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis failed to do.
Floyd is also the youngest heavyweight champion in history, a record I doubt will ever be broken. I realize that Mike Tyson (20) is the youngest title holder, but Floyd was the youngest lineal heavyweight champion at 21.
Tyson was a few days shy of turning 22 when he knocked out Michael Spinks to win the lineal championship and officially become the undisputed heavyweight champion.
Technically Tyson is the youngest champion, but due to the fact that the lineal championship is the most important title of all, Floyd still has some right to this record.
Ken Norton held the WBC Championship once and soundly defeated Muhammad Ali. He also came within a hair of beating Larry Holmes in one of the closest fights ever. Other than those feats, he didn’t accomplish much.
This is tricky because it depends on how you rank your fighters.
From a head to head perspective, Norton matches up better with the modern heavyweights. At 5'11 and 189 pounds, Floyd Patterson would be a cruiserweight today. A match against someone the size of Lennox Lewis would be a disaster for him.
A 6'3, 220 pound hard-punching counterpuncher like Ken Norton would have picked up more titles if he fought during the 1990s. If he were fighting today, he would most likely fall victim to Deontay Wilder's right hand and get counted out. But he'd still be a top contender. Norton's skill may get him past sloppy fighters like Andy Ruiz (though Ruiz has a puncher's chance). Still, you could argue that he would give Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury good fights before they knock him out.
Patterson accomplished more than Norton, and at a real young age, so I have no choice but to rate him higher than Norton. But again, it depends on your ranking criteria.
Backlash From The Black Community
The black community was temporarily harsh on both of these men. In these blogs I rarely talk about things that happened outside the ring, but since both of these guys had trouble with the African American public at certain times, I feel the need to address it.
Norton was criticized by playing a slave in the 1975 movie, Mandingo. Years earlier, former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore faced similar criticism for playing Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But during Archie’s time, there were not many roles for African Americans that were not slaves, butlers, or dancing bug-eyed fools. Because of that, I don’t have a huge issue with Archie playing a slave. It was likely the only movie role he could get at that time in U.S. history.
By the 1970s, on the other hand, things had lightened up. For example, Duane Jones had already played the lead character in 1968’s Night Of The Living Dead. Ken Norton didn’t have to play a slave. He had more options. Because of this he was slammed by the black press.
Floyd Patterson was famously (and repeatedly) called an Uncle Tom by Muhammad Ali and other Civil Rights leaders. Here’s the thing. Guys like Joe Louis and Joe Frazier, for example, were not great speakers like an MLK, Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X. It just wasn’t their gift. The same is true of Floyd Patterson. But unlike Patterson, Louis and Frazier did what they could behind the scenes to make change for African Americans.
Joe Louis refused to entertain only white troops during WW2, and desegregated the United States Army as a result. Joe also desegregated the PGA golf program during the 1950s after his final retirement. Similarly, Joe Frazier stayed out of the spotlight with his good deeds also, most notably going to then-President Nixon to persuade him to give Muhammad Ali his boxing license back.
Louis and Frazier were not public civil rights activists, but they discreetly made change. Just because they were quiet about it didn’t make them “Uncle Toms” no matter what Ali said. That was wrong of him, especially publicly slamming Frazier, who went out of his way to give Ali a shot at his championship.
That brings me to Floyd Patterson, who not only didn’t do anything to bring about change for his people, but openly sucked up to the white man. Floyd publicly said that Muhammad Ali was “not an American.” What the hell, dude? And he also refused to call him “Muhammad Ali,” instead referring to him as Cassius Clay. Some fellow boxers (both white and black) such as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, initially didn't agree with Ali's new name and other political statements, especially refusing the induction into the Army. But once they got to know him, they understood. Louis confirmed this in his autobiography, and Peter Marciano mentioned this in his interview on the Marciano v. Ali Computer Fight documentary.
But even Marciano and Louis didn't publicly slam Ali the way that Patterson did, and for Patterson to say these things about another black man (especially one fighting for Civil Rights) was a blatant sell-out move in my opinion.
Floyd was commonly referred to as “the good Negro,” especially in his fights against the “thug” Sonny Liston and the “militant black Muslim” Muhammad Ali. In fact, many former heavyweight champions like Rocky Marciano, Jim Braddock, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott and Ingemar Johanson picked Patterson to beat Liston, but they were thinking with their hearts. I honestly think their prediction was a pick against Liston rather than a pick for Floyd. As former heavyweight champions, they had to know Patterson would lose, especially Ingemar, who basically made a habit of dropping Patterson. If he could hurt Patterson, surely Sonny Liston would.
There’s more I could get into here...a lot more. But I prefer to talk about boxing rather than politics. Let's move on to the final segment.
Here we go. The fun part. The most similar fighter to Ken Norton that Floyd Patterson fought was Ingemar Johansson, going 2-1 against him during a great trilogy.
During their first battle, Floyd had issues getting inside because of Ingemar's consistent jab. The jab was not landing so much, but it kept Floyd from getting set to attack. By the third round, Ingemar began to surprise Floyd with a thunderous right hand after a preceding left hook. Patterson went down 7 times from there.
Floyd got his revenge by knocking out Ingemar in their next two fights. He occasionally got hurt and knocked down in these fights, but he fought more aggressively, not allowing Ingemar to control the action with his jab.
Now, I said earlier that Ingemar was similar to Norton. This isn’t too accurate of a statement, but Ingemar was the closest thing to a Norton-esque fighter that he fought.
Norton was better than Ingemar. He was noticeably much bigger at 6’3, 220 pounds. He hit harder than Ingemar. He fought with an awkward defense, and could knock you out with either hand. In short, he was a much better fighter than Ingemar Johansson, who was the best fighter Floyd fought during his best years. (Aside from Sonny Liston and an aging Archie Moore).
Now, the closest fighter to Floyd Patterson that Norton fought was Jimmy Young. (Jimmy wasn't really anything like Patterson, but he was the closest fighter I could compare Patterson to). Norton won a close and controversial split decision. Most observers, including referee Carlos Padilla, felt that Young should have won the fight.
The fight was back and forth. Young fought aggressively at times, and defensively at others. Jimmy was a small man that could be hard to catch. He was also much more durable than Patterson could ever be. Young not only withstood blows from Norton, but from a prime George Foreman as well.
To be fair, by 1977 George was still haunted by the ghost of Muhammad Ali in Zaire. He was afraid of losing stamina and was hesitant to “pull the trigger.” But still, Young got hit throughout the fight and survived Foreman’s blows. Patterson would never pull that off, regardless of Foreman’s mental state.
Jimmy Young beat George Foreman so bad that George saw Jesus after the fight. True story.
Knowing Floyd, he might get intimidated by Norton’s physique alone. Norton wasn’t Sonny Liston, but he looked imposing, as his nickname “Black Hercules” suggested. Floyd had a lot of speed, but I think the beginning of the end would happen the moment Norton lands his first big punch. It could be a hard left to the body, or a brutal jaw-breaking right hand.
Like Ingemar, Norton had the jab to keep Floyd from finding his rhythm. Norton’s jab was a straight punch and more of a clever counter attack than Liston’s long, slow jab, which Floyd dodged well but failed to counter.
I could never imagine Ken being afraid of Floyd, but I could see it being vice versa. Also, I believe Ken had the chin to withstand Floyd’s dynamite blows, but Floyd would probably get hurt bad by Ken’s attacks. With Ken's armadillo defense and counter-jab, it would be hard for Patterson to move in without getting cracked. Norton would see the gazelle punch coming and counter effectively.
Again, Norton waited for your chest to flex, so I don't see Floyd's speed being a factor because Norton would always know when a punch was coming.
It’s just not a good match-up for Patterson. The smaller Patterson would get knocked off his feet multiple times and wish he’d have stayed a light heavyweight. After the fight, he would cry more than my grandma did when Marvin Gaye died. OK, I'm exaggerating. But seriously. My final prediction would be a referee stoppage after Floyd has repeatedly hit the deck, too dazed to continue.
Ken Norton wins by technical knockout in round 3.