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KEN NORTON IS NOW FIGHTING BACK : Former Champ Is Learning to Talk Again After 1986 Car Accident

December 26, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

When Jackie Norton met her husband Ken on a blind date several years ago, she was pleasantly surprised.

"He was not at all what I expected," she says. "Kenny didn't fit the stereotype I thought of a fighter. There's something about a fighter that looks like a fighter."

Or walks like a fighter, or talks like a fighter.

Hearing that, Norton would get upset.

He would challenge her, "What does a fighter look like?"

Whatever it is, Jackie still says, "Kenny doesn't have it. He's very sensitive, very shy--and very funny."

She speaks in the present tense. After 50 fights--even after that final, 54-second thrashing at the hands of Gerry Cooney in 1981--Norton was still all of those things. He made a clean getaway from the game, his features and his faculties intact.

But wait a minute, a stranger might say, what about the slow gait, the slurred speech?

Well, life played a very cruel trick on Norton, a blow well below the belt.

On the Sunday night of Feb. 23, 1986, Norton's Clenet sports car crashed off the Vermont on-ramp to the Santa Monica Freeway, leaving him with a fractured skull, jaw and leg, and absolutely no recollection of what happened.

Investigators determined that neither drugs nor alcohol were involved. Norton was known as not much of a drinker, anyway. For a time, there was speculation that another car had crowded his off the ramp, but there were no witnesses and no evidence of that was ever found.

But in one violent instant, his life was changed.

"He was well-blessed, up to the accident," Jackie says. "Ken didn't get into boxing for the traditional reasons. He came from an upper-middle class family. He went to college. He got into boxing when he was in the Marines to stay out of Vietnam.

"The ironic part is that the blow to the head affected his speech. People think it's from boxing, but it's not."

As Norton says, now he talks "how 98% of people expect an ex-fighter to talk."

Even without his jaws wired tight, Kenneth Howard Norton remains a modern-day Man in the Iron Mask, trapped behind a facade of fate's making, screaming to be heard and understood. It's me in here, he pleads.

But instead of crying "foul!" Norton decided to concentrate his energy on a comeback--not like two other former heavyweight champions and adversaries, Larry Holmes and George Foreman, are trying to come back, but a comeback that would just return him to a facsimile of what he was when he left the ring.

Lying in the hospital for three weeks, stitches traversing the top of his head from one ear to the other where his skull was split open, the magnificent physique wasted away 43 pounds, "right before our eyes," Jackie said.

Now he lifts weights, which he never did before, and has regained about half of the weight he lost with a dedicated training program limited only by the severity of the trauma to his right leg, which was broken above and below the knee.

Norton would like to run, but he knows he is lucky to walk. Above all, he wants to talk.

"It bothers me to speak like this because it's so much different from what I was," he said in an interview at his home in Laguna Niguel.

Jackie: "When he's rested and on medication, he's OK. He's doing a lot better."

Norton: "Some days my voice, like now, is kind of husky. Some days it's plainer."

Until he got his broken jaw unwired several weeks after the accident, Norton had no idea he would have a problem.

"No one did," he said.

His first words sounded like a foreign language, and because the right side of his body was numb, he couldn't even write notes.

"It upset me that I couldn't communicate," he said. "To me, when I talked it sounded clear, but not to anybody else."

He tried speech therapy.

"I got bored with it," he said. "We didn't do anything different. It was easier to come home and read aloud to myself and tape it and play it back. It helps a lot more. Now I'm coherent. I know best what will help me. I think I do, anyway. I can tell I'm getting better."

He monitors himself when he talks.

"I don't just talk anymore. I can't sit and have a conversation with anybody--even my kids--without listening to myself. It's kind of a conditioned reflex now."

Jackie: "Kenny used to say, 'Jackie, it's like I'm watching everything on television.' "

Norton: "Like a dream. Now it's better. Each month it becomes more real. Even now it's not perfect. I'm aware that we're sitting here talking, but I look around . . . I don't believe it 100%."

Seated at the bar separating the kitchen from the family room, he said, "I haven't had a drink since I got hurt."

No one needs to throw a benefit for Ken Norton. He said in 1985 when he and his former manager/business partner, Jack Rodri, opened the Ken Norton Personal Management Agency--with Eric Dickerson as the only client--that he had tripled his money since retiring.

Now, in separate legal action, Norton and Dickerson are each suing Rodri for mismanaging their business affairs.

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