Following Saturday’s heavyweight PPV involving Luis Ortiz and Charles Martin, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston recalls another night of the behemoths in the late 1970s featuring celebrated names Larry Holmes and Ken Norton, as well as noted contenders Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young.

Last weekend’s all-heavyweight pay-per-view show had me thinking back to something similar, except that this one was on “free” American TV. It took place on Wednesday, September 14, 1977, with NBC-TV televising a Don King promotion entitled A Night With The Heavyweights at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. 

King’s show featured five TV fights, with Ken Norton in the main event against Italy’s Lorenzo Zanon.

Also on the bill were contenders Jimmy Young and Ron Lyle and the undefeated future champion Larry Holmes.

The WBC had mandated Norton and Young to meet in a final eliminator. So Norton and Young were in essence boxing in tune-ups. “From tune-up fights, history has been made,” King told the press, citing as an example Norton’s win over Muhammad Ali, when The Greatest suffered a broken jaw.

Jimmy Young was matched against Jody Ballard, perhaps best known for his appearance against George Foreman in the Foreman versus Five event in Toronto, when he lost in the second round against the former champ.

Lyle, 36, was paired with Stan Ward, a 28-year-old from Sacramento who held wins over former contenders Mac Foster (10-round decision) and Jeff Merritt (TKO3) in an unbeaten 10-fight career. In his last bout, six months earlier Lyle had won a split decision over Britain’s Joe Bugner.

Holmes’ opponent was one Fred Houpe, who boxed in national championship tournaments as an amateur and had a 12-1 record. Houpe was better known as Young Sanford, a nickname coined because the comedian Redd Foxx (“Sanford” in the TV series Sanford and Son) had a financial interest in the boxer.

And what of the fights? All the favourites won (as was the case in last weekend’s heavyweight show) but not all the victories were straightforward.

Norton, for instance, struggled somewhat before getting Zanon out of there on a fifth-round knockout. The balding, sideburned Italian heavyweight proved to be quite the nuisance as he moved around the ring, pecking away with left jabs and landing slapping right hands. (You can find the bout on YouTube.)

Norton, much the stronger man and by far the bigger puncher, trudged forward in almost disinterested fashion. After four rounds all three judges had Zanon in front (NBC flashed the judges’ scores on the screen at the start of each round). Norton even had a bit of a swelling under the right eye.

But finally, in the fifth round, Norton connected with a big overhand right that crumpled Zanon to the canvas. Zanon beat the count but Norton dropped him again with a right hand in the closing seconds of the fifth round. Referee Joey Giambra, the former middleweight contender, completed the count after the round had ended, officially at three minutes, eight seconds of the fifth.

Norton (left) catches up with Zanon. Photo: Boxrec.

Ballard provided stubborn opposition against Young and was actually leading on points at the halfway stage. But Young’s greater experience showed in the second half of the fight as he moved in behind a high guard and landed short, jolting punches. Ballard made a big effort at the start of the final round, but Young came back with a sharp assortment of blows including some nifty right uppercuts. 

It was a unanimous decision win for Young, but he knew he had been in a fight.

Lyle really had his hands full against Ward, winning by majority decision. And Lyle only just got there. The contest was one point from being scored a draw. Ward gamely battled it out with the more experienced Lyle in tough, close exchanges on the inside. And it was Ward who closed strongly, backing up a tiring Lyle on the ropes in the last round and landing left hooks. The decision was booed.

Holmes, for me, was the star of the evening. Unbeaten in 24 bouts, the future heavyweight champion dominated Sanford, landing the left jab time and again. There is no video available but as I recall Holmes had Sanford swollen around the eyes and worn down to a standstill when the fight was mercifully stopped in the seventh round. 

In the forgettable show-opener, the huge, 271lbs Leroy Jones extended his unbeaten record to 20-0-1 (11 KOs) with a unanimous 10-round decision over the much lighter Gregory Johnson.

All in all, it was a diverting night of boxing, with Norton looking in some danger of blowing what was expected to be an easy fight, Jimmy Young having to dig deep, Lyle and Ward engaging in trench warfare and Holmes looking every inch a future great heavyweight champion.

The Night With The Heavyweights broadcast contained a peculiarity. When the judges’ scores for each round were shown on screen, the NBC commentator thought that a boxer was leading by the aggregate total. For instance, after the second round of Norton vs Zanon, the judges’ scores showed Zanon in front by 10-9, 10-9 and 10-8 on the five-point-must system then used in Nevada and the commentator incorrectly informed viewers: “Right now Zanon is leading 30 to 26.” Unbelievable. Did this guy know anything about boxing?

And now, the aftermath.

Three months after Night With The Heavyweights, Norton defeated Young on a 15-round split decision. He was awarded the WBC title when Leon Spinks’ handlers elected to proceed with a Muhammad Ali rematch rather than go through with the less lucrative mandatory title defence against Norton. 

In his first defence, Norton lost a split 15-round decision to Holmes in one of the great modern-day heavyweight title bouts. Holmes stopped Leroy Jones in the eighth round of a one-sided title bout in March 1980.

Ron Lyle won his next three bouts after the gruelling victory over Ward but suffered a shocking second-round defeat against a little-known fighter named Lynn Ball. In his last big fight, aged 39, Lyle was served up to the then rising star Gerry Cooney, who knocked him out in the first round.

Lorenzo Zanon won the European title and got a shot at Larry Holmes for the WBC championship, losing on a six-round TKO in February 1980.

Stan Ward went on to be a serviceable heavyweight although never a contender. His career included a win and two losses in a three-bout series with Mike Weaver, the first two fights taking place before Weaver’s stunning KO win over John Tate. Weaver was an ex-champion when he stopped Ward in the ninth round of their rubber match.

And Young Sanford, after a win and a loss in 1978, was inactive for 17 years, returning for four bouts from 1995 to 1998, starting with a decision victory over a badly faded Leon Spinks and ending with three stoppage defeats in a row. He was 38 when he had his last fight.

Main image: Larry Holmes. Photo: WBC.