Thursday, April 16, 2015

Kid Norfolk: The Black Thunderbolt


By Peter Silkov


William Ward is a name that generally won’t generate much response from most boxing fans today, yet, during a boxing career in which he fought under the name of “Kid Norfolk.” Kid Norfolk was one of the best fighters of his era and another coloured fighter who was denied the opportunity to fulfill his true potential, due to the colour of his skin. William Ward was born on July 10, 1893 (although some sources claim September 20, 1895, as his birth date) in Norfolk, Virginia. As Kid Norfolk, “The Black Thunderbolt” he would become one of the most formidable and feared fighters of his era. 

Ward was born to fight, and by the time he was in his teens, he had relocated to Baltimore and was fighting in the notorious ‘Battle Royals.’ At these events, a number of black fighters would be placed in a ring together and left to fight it out, with the last one standing being the winner. Ward launched his professional boxing career in 1914, in Panama, which was then a hot bed of boxing activity, and called himself Kid Norfolk, in honour of the town where he had been born. 

Kid Norfolk was a short and muscular fighter, with great physical strength and endurance. Although standing just 5’ feet 8”inches, and weighing between 165 to 185 during his career, Norfolk would fight fully fledged heavyweights, often giving away as much as 30 pounds in weight to his opponents. Norfolk had no fear of fighting anyone no matter what their size, and at the same time, he was soon being avoided by many of the top middleweights and light-heavyweights in the world. When it came to fighters such as Norfolk the colour bar would come in handy for those who wished to avoid fighting him mainly because he was so formidable an opponent. 

During his career, Norfolk would battle it out with such fighters as “Rough House” Ware, Jeff Clark, Ed “Gunboat” Smith, “Big” Bill Tate, Arthur Pelkey, Billy Miske, Sam Langford, Dan “Porky” Flynn, Joe Jeannette, “Jamaica Kid”, “Black Fitzsimmons”, Harry Greb, Harry Wills, John Lester Johnson, “Tiger” Flowers, Battling Siki, Tommy Gibbons, and Ed “Bearcat” Wright.

While in Panama, Kid Norfolk soon began running out of opponents; few middleweights and light-heavyweights could resist his powerful punches, and aggressive style. Most of Norfolk’s defeats were to heavyweights when he was usually giving away significant amounts of weight and height away. But, even at heavyweight defeats were very far and few between for Norfolk.

Sam Langford was the first (and one of the very few) fighters to knock out Norfolk, stopping him in the 2nd round of their December 17, 1917, meeting. By this time, The Black Thunderbolt had moved from Panama back to America in search of bigger challenges and larger purses, and increasingly he would fight only heavyweights.

The Langford defeat was a severe blow, but Norfolk was soon back to winning ways and working on a new string of victories. A defeat at the hands of Sam Langford was certainly no disgrace. 

One of Norfolk’s most famous victories was his contest with the legendary Harry Greb on August 29, 1921. Although the fight was a ‘no decision’ affair, meaning that there would be no official point’s decision given if the bout went the distance, Norfolk was judged the ‘winner’ in the next days newspaper verdicts. Like many of Norfolk’s contests, this was a ferocious fight, and has gone down in boxing history as being the fight in which Greb was so badly damaged in his right eye, that he soon lost the sight from it.

Kid Norfolk’s dream was to fight Jack Dempsey for the World heavyweight championship. The Kid had almost got Dempsey into the same ring in 1918, before Dempsey had won the heavyweight title, but after protracted negotiations the fight fell through, with Dempsey’s side saying that the money wasn’t right. 

After Dempsey won the World heavyweight crown, Norfolk’s pursuit of him became more acute. Many of those in the know felt that Norfolk had the strength and the style to overpower Dempsey. On December 14, 1920, Norfolk came the closest he ever would to sharing a ring with Jack Dempsey, when he fought on the undercard of Dempsey’s World heavyweight title defence against Bill Brennan. While Dempsey and Brennan fought for the richest prize in sport, Norfolk fought Dempsey’s longtime sparring partner Bill Tate for the Coloured World heavyweight title.

Ironically, Brennan was a stablemate of Norfolk’s who The Black Thunderbolt handled with ease in sparring.  Brennan was a tough fighter, but seen by most, as a clearly inferior fighter to Norfolk, but it was Brennan who gained the fight, which Norfolk craved so much. 

Norfolk had to be content with battering Dempsey’s sparring partner all over the ring for 10 rounds, before being awarded the rather cryptic Coloured Heavyweight championship on points. In the main event, Brennan gave Dempsey one of his hardest fights, until he was eventually knocked out in the 12th round, Norfolk’s own ‘Title’ victory had an even more bitter taste to it.

Things started to go wrong for Norfolk in late 1921. In a fight with Lee Anderson, (a grizzled veteran whom Norfolk had possibly underestimated) Norfolk was severely cut over and upon the left eye in the 7th round of a brutal slugfest. So bad was the cut that Norfolk was pulled out of the fight by his corner before the start of the 8th round. 

The defeat cost Norfolk his Coloured heavyweight championship, but more seriously, his left eye would never heal properly. He would steadily lose the sight from it, so that in a little while, he was rendered completely blind in that eye.

In his efforts to gain a match with Dempsey for the Heavyweight championship, Norfolk faced Harry Wills on March 2, 1922. Wills, who had himself been clamoring for a title shot against Dempsey, was knocked out in the second round by Wills, who had outweighed Norfolk by over 30 pounds.

The defeat to Wills dealt a crushing blow to Norfolk’s ambitions of fighting Jack Dempsey for the Heavyweight championship. Neither he, nor Willis, would ever corner the elusive Dempsey within a boxing ring. Norfolk’s defeat to Wills also signaled a down turn in the flow of Norfolk’s career. With his left eye deteriorating steadily, until it was soon completely sightless, Norfolk’s overall form drained significantly, and he was soon picking up defeats against fighters whom he would previously have beaten. From 1923 till the end of his career in 1926, Norfolk continued to fight regularly, but with dwindling ability. Norfolk was still dangerous and game as ever, and was still able to pull out some good results, but the defeats were increasing and by 1925, Norfolk was banned from fighting in California due to his blindness.

Norfolk finally hung up his gloves in 1926, after being stopped in 4 rounds by Ted Moore. His final record was 83(47koes)-23-6 (28-4 newspaper decisions.)

Norfolk spent his later years hanging round the gyms and advising young fighters on the fundamentals of boxing, while earning a living from an apartment building he had brought in Harlem, New York, which he rented out.

The Black Thunderbolt died on April 14, 1968. Although widely overlooked and underrated today, Norfolk is one of the ‘golden generation’ of black fighters whom had he been given the chance, would almost certainly have won a world title during his career. Unfortunately, Kid Norfolk lived and fought at a time when being good could only take you so far, if you didn’t have the right coloured skin.   


Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to www.theboxingglove.com and www.theboxingtribune.com


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1 comment:

  1. A nice piece, Peter! Just need to correct you on one part. Norfolk wasn't judged the winner over Harry Greb on 8/29/1921. The verdicts were divided with most feeling Greb had taken it. It is written about in detail in "Live Fast, Die Young the Life and Times of Harry Greb", which is the definitive record on Greb. Pittsburgh Post, Pittsburgh Times, and AP all gave out to Greb, as did referee Yock Henniger. --Douglas Cavanaugh

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