In this second of three VHS Classic Rewind installments leading up to the 30-year anniversary of the heavyweight championship fight between former king Larry Holmes and top contender Gerry Cooney, we revisit one of the fastest knockout victories in boxing history – Cooney's :54 demolition of aging ex-champion Ken Norton on May 11, 1981 at New York's Madison Square Garden
The undefeated Cooney (24-0, 21 KO's) solidified his top ranking within the heavyweight division with stoppages over veterans Jimmy Young and Ron Lyle. The criticism of the 24-year old slugger was that his quick one-sided victories came against aged fighters well past their prime. Thus, he lacked the experience required to successfully compete with the top tier heavyweights of his era.
At 37, former WBC heavyweight champion Norton (42-6-1, 33 KO's) was another aging opponent for the rising Cooney. Norton was best known for his split decision victory over Muhammad Ali in March 1973 where he famously broke Ali's jaw to become only the second man (after Joe Frazier) to defeat 'The Greatest' while in his prime as a professional. Norton lost two subsequent fights by decision to Ali and suffered a second round technical knockout loss to George Foreman in a March 1974 world title attempt.
Norton, who became the #1 contender after defeating Young in a November 1977 title eliminator fight, was awarded the WBC championship in March 1978 when Leon Spinks was stripped of the belt after electing to fight Ali in a rematch instead of him. In his first defense of the title, Norton lost to Holmes by split decision in June 1978. Not unlike Young, Norton was now facing Cooney in an attempt to stay relevant and get another title shot.
Cooney landed the first blow with a straight right hand that buckled the former champion whose chin was exposed with his trademark cross-armed defense. Norton continued to crouch forward while throwing punches but was simply out punched by the bigger and more powerful Cooney who effectively circled him back against the ropes into the corner.
The rest of the fight took place in Norton's corner where Cooney pounded away with a swarm of combinations. A right uppercut landed that momentarily lifted Norton's head up while his hands slowly dropped. Cooney pounced on the opportunity and hammered away with left-right combinations.
As Norton began to slowly and defenselessly slump to the canvas, Cooney landed five successive and massive blows flush to the head. Referee Tony Perez was extremely tentative in jumping in to stop the fight, causing Norton to take more shots than necessary at that stage. The end, mercilessly, came at :54 of Round 1 with a brutally dazed Norton slumped in his corner.
It took longer for Norton to show signs of recovery from the beat down than the fight itself, taking almost three minutes to rise from the canvas amidst the melee in his corner.
Cooney was now in line for a shot at the heavyweight championship. It was unclear at that point whether the undefeated powerhouse would challenge WBA champion Mike Weaver or long-time WBC champion Holmes. It would be a costly delay of 13 months before Cooney would be back in the ring for the fight of his life.
Norton retired after the devastating knockout loss to Cooney. His fifty fight, Hall of Fame career ended with a record of 42-7-1, 33 KO's.
The next installment of VHS Classic Rewind will appear on June 11, 2012, the 30-year anniversary of Holmes vs. Cooney.
This special edition will include perspective from Holmes based on Boxing 101's recent conversation with one of the all-time great heavyweight champions to have ever laced up the gloves.
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