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My encounters with heavyweight champs

By Terry Haller

Guest columnist

Years ago, I had a few Quaker Oats foreign subsidiaries under my wing. This meant I had to travel a lot. Back then, boxing was still a popular sport and almost everywhere I went I bumped into a prizefighter.

I once rode an elevator with Mohammed Ali at the San Juan Hilton. He was 6-feet, 4 inches tall but seemed much bigger. All the heavyweights I encountered seemed bigger than life.

Another time, in the café at the Tamanaco Hotel in Caracas, I have a table next to Joe Frazier. They liked to call him “Smokin’ Joe.” Anyway, we’re having breakfast and we overhear Frazier bragging about how he could beat George Foreman, the current world heavyweight champion. Suddenly, Smokin’ Joe gets up, stands right behind me, and demonstrates his lethal blows directly above my noggin. I duck in mock fear (just like Hillary on the tarmac) and we all laugh.

Frazier is in town for the George Foreman versus Ken Norton heavyweight title bout. Frazier would one day have to box both of them on his way to the title.

I am stuck in Caracas for the weekend. Early Saturday morning I go out on the patio to check the weather. Ken Norton’s entourage is assembled on the patio, they are all African-American, and they are all wearing navy-blue sweatshirts with NORTON in block letters on the back. Even his mother wears one. I figure she’s his mother; she’s too old to be his wife.

I spot a Norton cohort just finishing with the local English-language paper. He is enormous. I approach him with caution.

“Can I see your paper for a minute?” I ask.

“What do you want it for?” he demands in a menacing voice. Anatomy is destiny, and this guy has nothing to prove.

“To see what’s on at the movies,” I explain. “I have to travel a lot and miss the good ones,” I add, sounding like a total schmuck. He doesn’t care how much traveling I have to do. He looks like he never has to care about anything.

“I can tell you what’s on,” he snaps, opening the paper to the entertainment page. “At the El Dorado they got ‘Papillon,’ with Steve McQueen. You speak Spanish?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “That’s the only American one they got here right now,” he concludes.

I saw Papillon three weeks ago in Copenhagen. It was also on the week before in Melbourne. It’s following me everywhere.

I start to walk off, figuring our interlude is over, but I’m not getting the brush-off as I expect. “I like movies,” he says, this time sounding more like a peace-loving fellow.

We talk a bit about movies. Then he tells me he’s Norton’s sparring partner. I’m struggling for something bright to say to that. Mulling through my mind is: “Do you ever get mad at each other and start a real fight?” No, that sounds dopey. I am out of my depth. “No, wait,” I think, “I could tell him about Smokin’ Joe at breakfast yesterday.”

But I don’t get the chance. Just then a little old man approaches us. He is carrying an easy-to-load Kodak Instamatic and he’s conspicuously nervous.

“Can I take your picture?” he hesitatingly asks my huge black friend.

“Do you know who I am?” the sparring partner asks.

“Sure, you’re going to be in a big fight tomorrow,” the little guy blurts. “So can I take your picture?”

‘Yeah. Okay, but my manager’s got to be in it,” replies the sparring partner, putting his brawny arm around me and dragging me close to him.

The little old man snaps the picture, and the sparring partner winks at me, and then says: “That’ll be a dollar.”

Norton would go on to hold the heavyweight title from 1977 to 1978. He is best known for his fights with Muhammad Ali, (one win, two losses). For the fight I mention above (March 26, 1974) he would lose to Foreman in round two at the Poliedro stadium. To boxing fans the fight would be known as the “Caracas Caper.” Norton died in a care facility after a series of strokes at age 70. His son, Ken Norton, jr., played football for UCLA and in the NFL.

TERRY HALLER is an Oxford resident. You can reach him at hallerraven@hotmail.com