LAGUNA NIGUEL, CALIF. -- When Ken Norton met his wife, Jackie, 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, she still says, "Kenny doesn't have it. He's very sensitive, very shy -- and very funny."

She speaks in present tense. After 50 fights -- even after that final, 54-second thrashing at the hands of Gerry Cooney in 1981 -- Norton was 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 an on-ramp to the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles, 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.

But in one violent instant, his life was changed.

"He was well blessed, up to the accident," Jackie Norton 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 percent 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 to the ring, but a return 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 Norton 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 here, about 50 miles south of Los Angeles.

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

Ken 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."

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."

"Kenny used to say," his wife related, '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 percent."

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. But Norton and his family appear comfortable in a large new home.

Jackie is the mother of Norton's younger children, Kenisha, 11, and Kene Jon, 6. His oldest son, Ken Jr., the UCLA linebacker, is from his first marriage, and Brandon, 17, is from Jackie's first marriage.

The ordeal of the last two years "has made us a lot closer, in some respects," Norton said. "They were very supportive, very uplifting. If I had no one, I wouldn't have come back as quick . . . plus my belief in the Man upstairs. I believe that if God hadn't wanted me to live I would have died in the accident. From what I hear, I should have died."

A year of his memory is only scattered fragments, like a tape that has been erased.

"Eleven months I don't remember . . . 11 months afterward and maybe two months before," Norton said. "It's just gone."

Jackie Norton said, "He was a little frustrated because he didn't know what happened. You tell him he was in a crash, and it just didn't register. By the time everything started settling in and he finally realized that he'd been injured, he couldn't walk, his mouth was wired shut . . ."

And because he couldn't write and could barely talk through his teeth, his demands were sometimes misunderstood, even by Jackie.

"Every time I asked for water I got ice water. Can you imagine ice water on that metal? I haven't forgotten that."

Jackie: "I'm still hearing about it."

He also recalled "my son {Ken Jr.} taking me to the shower once at the house, in the back room."

Jackie: "He had to dress him, undress him, sit him . . . almost had to take a shower with him."

Norton: "It didn't bother me. It meant a lot to me, that my son would help me that way."

Last season Norton tried going to a UCLA game at the Rose Bowl.

"I watched maybe half a quarter when, with the sun rays, I'd go blind -- I couldn't see anything -- so I'd leave. The first year I'd listen on the radio. Couldn't go. This year I went to every game."

Norton is anything but bitter about the accident.

"He's a con act," said Eileen Verdugo, the administrator at the Saddleback Chiropractic Facility and Rehabilitation Center which Norton frequents. "Every time he comes in he makes wisecracks about how he can't talk. Sometimes he leaves us in stitches. He's really upbeat, and he's really come a long way."

One of his therapists, Dr. Janice Kowalski, said, "What we're trying to do is balance the right side of his body that suffered most of the trauma with the left side. He had a significant loss of coordination in his right side. The trouble is he can't get the signals from his brain down to his leg to tell him where it is."

Norton is treated with a helium neon laser -- kind of a space-age acupuncture process. "It balances the flow of energy in his body," Kowalski said.

Norton has some numbness in the leg, but "it was completely numb before," Kowalski said. "The man is dedicated. They didn't even think he would walk."

Jackie said Norton told her once, "Maybe if I hadn't had my accident, I'd try a comeback."

She scoffs. Norton has always been sensitive about his age. The Ring Record Book gives his birth date as Aug. 9, 1943, which would make him 44. Larry Holmes, who will try to regain his title from Mike Tyson Jan. 22, is 38. George Foreman, with five wins over journeymen in his comeback, is almost 40.

Norton said, "When Larry and I fought, I was 38." But because that was on June 9, 1978, Norton now puts himself at 47. Oops.

Jackie never saw Norton fight -- not even the memorable 15-round bout in which he lost the title to Holmes on a decision.

"I was on a plane to Las Vegas during the fight to meet him afterward," she said. "I timed it that way.

"Ken had always lied about his age, anyway, but they were saying he was too old, his legs were going, and Larry Holmes then was 10 years younger than Kenny."

Norton: "Not 10 years. More like seven."

"My goal," he said, "is to be 100 percent. The way I'm going now, I'm never going to make it, but anything close is good."