After graduating from high school, Norton went to Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) on a football scholarship and studied elementary education.
Norton started boxing when he was in the United States Marine Corps. He compiled an amateur record of 24-2 and won the All-Marine Heavyweight Championship three times. Norton turned professional in 1967.
Norton started boxing when he was in the United States Marine Corps from 1963–1967, compiling a 24-2 record en route to three All-Marine Heavyweight titles. Following the National AAU finals in 1967, he turned professional.
Norton built up a string of steady wins, including some over fringe contenders. He suffered a surprise defeat, ironically just after Ring magazine had profiled him as a prospect, at the hands of Jose Luis Garcia in 1970. Afterwards, Norton was given the motivational book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, which he states in his autobiography, Going the Distance, changed his life. Upon reading it he went on a fourteen fight winning streak, including a shocking victory over Muhammad Ali in 1973 to win the North American Boxing Federation Heavyweight Champion title.
Norton Breaks Ali's Jaw
Norton won a 12 round split-decision over Muhammad Ali in his own home town of San Diego to win the NABF Heavyweight Title in 1973. In this bout, Norton broke Ali's jaw (he maintains in round eleven but Ali said round two), leading to only the second defeat for "The Greatest" in his career.
Ali Rematch and Title Shot
Six months after upsetting Ali, 'The Greatest' avenged the Norton loss in their rematch by earning a split decision. There were some furious exchanges in this hard fought battle. From Ali's point of view, a loss here would have seriously dented his claim of being 'The Greatest'.
In 1974, Norton fought George Foreman for the World Heavyweight Championship, but was brutally stopped in two rounds. And in 1975, Norton regained the NABF Heavyweight Title when he impressively defeated Jerry Quarry by TKO in the fifth round. Norton then avenged his above-mentioned 1970 loss to Jose Luis Garcia by decisively knocking-out Garcia in round five.
In 1976 Norton would again fight Ali, who was now the World Heavyweight Champion. Many observers have felt this was the beginning of Ali's decline as a boxer. In one of the most disputed fights in history, the fight was even on the judges' scorecards going into the final round, which Ali won on both the referee and judges' scorecards to retain the World Heavyweight Championship.
Aftermath, against Bobick and Young
1977 was a top year. Norton knocked out previously unbeaten top prospect Duane Bobick in one round and after dispatching European title holder Lorenzo Zannon easily he then beat number 2 contender Jimmy Young in a 15-round split-decision in a WBC big mandatory title-elimination fight. The winner was supposed to fight Ali for the world title, as some thought it was Norton's deserve from a year earlier but Ali would lose to Leon Spinks.
Following the Leon Spinks upset of Muhammad Ali for the championship in 1978, Spinks elected to fight a return bout against Ali rather than face the still dangerous Norton, the top contender. The World Boxing Council, which had mandated a Spinks-Norton bout for their championship, withdrew its recognition of Spinks as champion. As a result, in March 1978, the WBC named Norton it's champion by virtue of his win over Young.
Holmes vs Norton
In his first defense of the WBC title on June 9, 1978, Norton and new #1 contender Larry Holmes met in a classic fight. After 15 brutal rounds, Holmes was awarded the title via an extremely close split decision. The March 2001 edition of The Ring magazine listed the final round of the Holmes-Norton bout as the 7th most exciting round in boxing history.
Norton fought sporadically at the end of his career. He was KO'd by Earnie Shaver in the first round of their 1979 encounter, drew with top contenders Scott Le Doux and defeated another top contender, Randall "Tex" Cobb. In 1981, Norton accepted a title-eliminator bout with new top prospect Gerry Cooney, won brutally KO'd Norton in round 1. Norton retired from boxing after this bout.
The character of "Apollo Creed" in Rocky was initially going to be played by Norton. However, when he pulled out, Carl Weathers was selected.
Major World Titles
SD 12 Jimmy Young - 1977
TKO 1 Duane Bobick - 1977
TKO 5 Jerry Quarry - 1975
SD 12 Muhammad Ali -1973
RTD 7 Boone Kirkman - 1974
KO 1 Earnie Shavers - 1979
SD 15 Larry Holmes - 1978
UD 12 Muhammad Ali - 1976
KO 2 George Foreman - 1974
SD 12 Muhammad Ali -1973