Robert Silva writes about the third greatest Super Welterweight of all-time, Terrible Terry Norris.
Terry Norris was one of the ten greatest fighters of the 1990s. At 5’9”, he was an incredible boxer-puncher who dominated the 154-pound division. From 1990-1997, Norris reigned on three occasions as WBC Super Welterweight Champion and was the first boxer in the history of the division to unify the title with another sanctioning body. All of these attributes combined to make Norris the third greatest Super Welterweight of all-time.
Terry Norris was a tremendous amateur boxer while growing up in Lubbock, Texas, losing only four of his 295 fights. Norris then relocated to San Diego, California where he began his professional career. After winning 21 of his first 23 fights, on July 30, 1989, Norris earned a crack at WBA 154-pound champion Julian Jackson. While watching the fight on television, neither my father or I had heard of Norris and figured he had no shot against the power-punching champion. We were instantly impressed as Norris put on a brilliant display of boxing in the opening round. Norris showed great lateral movement, a nice left jab and quick combinations. Norris continued to impress the following round until the midway part of the round. Jackson trapped Norris against the ropes and landed a spectacular right cross that paralyzed Norris. After getting hit with a follow up left hook and another right, Norris went down face first with a thud. He got up at the count of nine, but was in no condition to continue. My father felt after this performance that Norris’s chin would be a detriment to his career.
Norris rebounded to win his next three fights to earn another shot at a 154-pound world title. This time it would come on March 31, 1990 against another power puncher, WBC Champion John “The Beast” Mugabi. Norris was a huge underdog because no one expected him to stand up once he was hit on the chin by Mugabi, one of the few fighters to ever seriously hurt Marvin Hagler in a fight. As he did against Jackson, Norris boxed brilliantly in the opening round against Mugabi. Less than a minute into the round, Norris landed a crushing left hook off his jab that staggered and dropped the champion. Mugabi got up and was out on his feet. With about 20 seconds left in the round, Norris landed a bomb of a right cross that knocked Mugabi face first to the canvas and out. Norris won the title in stunning and impressive fashion. My father and I both agreed that Norris was an exceptional boxer and at 22 years of age, the sky was the limit for the Texas native. Our biggest concern was his chin. For the next three and a half years, Norris was one of the top five fighters in the world. He would defeat one great former champion after another. The first great champion he defended his title against would be the first and only time my father and I saw the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard fight live. It would be Norris’s coming out party.
On February 9, 1991, I took my father to see Norris defend his title at Madison Square Garden against Leonard. It was my father’s 43rd birthday. Leonard was 34 years old the night of the fight. He fought like he was ten years older than my father. From the opening bell, Leonard took a beating similar to the one Muhammad Ali took in his ill fated comeback fight against Larry Holmes. For 12 rounds, Norris battered Leonard all over the ring. At any point in the fight, Norris could’ve stepped it up a notch and put Leonard to sleep. Like Holmes with Ali, Norris idolized Leonard and carried him the full 12 rounds. Norris was now a big time name in the world of boxing. He would destroy former champions like Meldrick Taylor, Donald Curry, and Maurice Blocker. Then on the night of December 18, 1993, against another former world champion, Norris’s Achilles heel would rear its ugly head.
Norris had successfully defended his title 10 times before that fateful night in Mexico. His opponent, Simon Brown, was a former Unified World Welterweight Champion who many experts felt was a shot fighter and made to order for Norris. Someone forgot to tell Brown that. Norris took the fight to Brown and landed several big bombs for the first three and a half rounds. Brown, unlike Norris, had a tremendous chin and had never been knocked out. Late in the fourth round, Norris was landing at will against Brown when he walked into a booming right cross. Norris, like he did against Jackson, fell face first to the canvas. He was completely unconscious and no longer champion in one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Super Welterweight division. Five months later, Norris regained the title by fighting a very tactical fight in winning a lopsided division. Then came a series of bizarre fights against journeyman Luis Santana.
On November 12, 1991, Norris once again traveled to Mexico to defend his title against the light hitting Santana. Norris was having his way against his overmatched opponent when referee Mitch Halpern called for them to break while against the ropes. Norris seemingly tapped Santana with a left hook to the back of his head. Santana then proceeded to act as though he had been struck by lightning. Santana feinted as though he was dying and was carried out on a stretcher. Norris was disqualified for landing what appeared to be a harmless rabbit punch. He didn’t put any power behind that punch and lost his title in the most bogus way possible. Then five months later, in the subsequent rematch, Norris was disqualified again after landing a right hand bomb several seconds after round three had ended. Once again, Santana won while being carted out on a stretcher. Finally, on August 19, 1995, Norris destroyed Santana in two rounds to win the WBC Super Welterweight title for a third time. His next major fight would be as personal as any prize fight I’ve ever seen.
After each of his fights, Norris’s very attractive wife Kelly would be seen with him while he was being interviewed inside the ring. What was unknown to boxing fans was that there was a strain in the marriage due to Norris’s infidelities. This resulted in Kelly herself being unfaithful to Terry. She began seeing another boxer who’d eventually become the IBF Super Welterweight Champion. On December 16, 1995 Norris would face that fight in a 154-pound title unification fight. It wasn’t the first fight between two reigning Super Welterweight Champions, but it was the first time that both governing bodies would sanction such a fight. Norris would face 27-year old fellow resident of San Diego, the IBF Champion Paul Vaden. Vaden had been involved with Kelly for several months before she went back to Terry. Give the devil it’s due, but Don King didn’t use the love triangle as a way to promote the fight. Norris administered a one sided beating to Vaden, hitting him at will for the entire 12 rounds. Every time he had Vaden in trouble, Norris would back off. 20/20 hindsight would explain why; he wanted to punish Vaden for engaging in an affair with Kelly. It would be the last great performance of Norris’s esteemed career.
Norris would successfully defend his unified title four times before finally losing the Super Welterweight title for the final time. On December 6, 1997 he was battered and beaten by Keith Mullings, a solid but not great fighter, in nine rounds. The pre-fight interviews saw Norris slurring his words. At the age of 30, he was already exhibiting early signs of pugilistic dementia. After two more beatings, Norris would be forced to retire at the age of 31. He couldn’t get licensed due to his dementia, and his wife Kelly divorced him. Norris eventually remarried, won a seven million dollar lawsuit against Don King, and is currently involved with his wife in a program to help fighters who suffer from similar brain injuries as himself.
Terry Norris was an incredible boxer who achieved greatness in the sport of boxing despite the lack of a good chin. Through three 154-pound title reigns, he successfully defended that title 16 times. He was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on his first ballot. All of this cumulated in Terry Norris becoming the third greatest Super Welterweight of all-time.
If you want to hear more about Terry’s career, check out the podcast that I did on him.