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George Foreman vs. Ken Norton 50th anniversary: Big George with a spectacular KO finish

The serene backdrop of Caracas, Venezuela, stood in sharp contrast to the concussive brutality that George Foreman inflicted on Ken Norton in the second defense of his heavyweight championship on March 26, 1974.

In just five minutes of action, the Adonis-like fighter from Jacksonville was blasted to the canvas three times by the hammering blows of Foreman, who improved his record to 40-0 (37 KOs) via second-round stoppage.

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After Sonny Liston, and before Mike Tyson, was Foreman. All three were cast in the same mold: former street muggers turned knockout artists who instilled fear in their opponents long before a punch was thrown. The tagline “invincible” was handed down to the trio during their respective heavyweight title reigns, though history will show that this was overpraised.

A former Olympic champion, Foreman had wrenched the greatest prize in sport from the previously unbeaten Joe Frazier in January 1973. The colossal Texan battered Smokin’ Joe to the canvas three times in round one and repeated the dosage in round two before the destruction was brought to a halt.

Herb Scharfman /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

For an encore, Foreman gave Japan its first-ever heavyweight championship match when he took on the unheralded — and thoroughly incapable — Jose Roman in September of that year. It was a dreadful mismatch that could easily have ended in a fatality. Foreman mutilated the Puerto Rican challenger, flooring him twice before finishing the job with a spectacular right uppercut.

The 30-2 Norton enjoyed a career-defining 1973. In March, the ex-marine, then ranked No. 7 in the world, broke the jaw of Muhammad Ali and won a 12-round split decision over “The Greatest”.  One of the biggest upsets in heavyweight history, the victory catapulted Norton into the big time. And even though Ali avenged the loss by split decision five months later, many felt that Norton deserved that verdict, too.

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Over a year into his title reign, with only one defense against cannon fodder, Foreman was given a deadline by the WBA and WBC. The message was simple: fight a worthy contender or else. With Ali and Frazier poised to fight for a second time, Foreman opted to take on the most formidable challenger he could find.

At the official press conference announcing the Norton fight, a reporter asked why the sport’s number one heavyweight was so inactive. “Past champions had a lot of contenders,” said Foreman before taking a thinly veiled swipe at Ali. “Certain people never hurt anybody; he’d leave them on their feet and dance, and the guy would be following him around the ring. After I fight people, nobody follows me around saying, ‘I’ll get you next time!’ or ‘I want a rematch!'”

George Foreman and Ken Norton announce fight

UPI/ Bettmann Archive/ Getty Images

The Foreman-Norton bout was marred by controversy. During fight week, the champ’s team insisted on an American referee, but their request was declined. Shortly thereafter, reports emerged that Foreman had sustained an injury to his knee, which meant the bout was now in jeopardy. The commission got the message. With just hours until fight time, the Seattle-based Jimmy Rondeau was drafted in as the third man in the ring, and Foreman’s mysterious ailment cleared up in a flash.

So confident was Don King of a Foreman win that the bombastic promoter had already opened negotiations for a Foreman-Ali fight in Kinshasa, Zaire. Even the purses — a record $5 million for each fighter — were made public. As it turned out, King had every reason to be confident.

Ali, who was stationed ringside in the role of analyst, had avenged his loss to Frazier two months earlier and was now the No. 1 contender for the title. However, the former champ was tipping Norton to upset Foreman and those expectations were bolstered when Norton boxed effectively in round one. “Any man that goes 24 rounds with me has got to be great and ain’t no George Foreman, who’s still a good amateur, gonna destroy Ken Norton because I couldn’t do it,” said Ali.

Just over two minutes later, Ali would have egg on his face. Trapped against the ropes and under fire in round two, Norton attempted to exit left and was caught by a powerful right hand to the jaw. Confident that the punch had an effect, Foreman followed up with a left and five consecutive rights, the last of which blasted a stricken Norton after the ropes had already held him up.

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Norton remained woozy throughout Rondeau’s count and he had the legs of a drunken man trying to stay erect in high wind. When the action continued, Foreman rushed in and sent the challenger sprawling into the ropes again without landing a clean blow. Norton was doomed!

Immediately after the second eight-count was administered, Foreman pounced like a lion on easy prey. The five-punch combination that followed — two lefts, two rights, and a terminal left — is perhaps the finest and most brutal finish of Foreman’s Hall of Fame career.

Incredibly, Norton found his feet before the 10-count was completed, but he was in no condition to take a sip of water, far less defend himself against a power-punching destroyer like Foreman. Rondeau called the fight over at 2:00 of round two.

The talk of Foreman being an “invincible” fighter only got louder following this crushing triumph.

“I’m gonna whip George Foreman,” an animated Ali told commentator Colonel Bob Sheridan at ringside as the pair discussed the forthcoming ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. “He can’t hit me with that stuff. I’m a professional!”

The rest, as they say, is history.

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