By Thomas Gerbasi
When asked about one of his most memorable fights, a 1979 rematch with Larry Holmes, Earnie Shavers proudly says, “You know, I was champ for five seconds.”
The now 73-year-old Shavers, who will be inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame on August 18, lets out a belly laugh, but everyone watching that fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas wouldn’t argue with him.
Holmes had scored a near-shutout win over Shavers in a title elimination bout a year and a half earlier, but five knockout wins in that time, including a first-round drubbing of Ken Norton, put the Ohio product back in with Holmes. It was going to be an uphill battle for Shavers, and he knew it.
“I knew when I fought Larry, it was gonna be tough,” Shavers said. “I had Larry for as a sparring partner for quite some time. He had an unbelievable jab and a good right hand too, and I knew it would be hard to beat Larry unless I had a shotgun.”
Shavers had a shotgun in his right hand, and in round seven, he fired it, Holmes dropping to the canvas with such finality that it seemed like referee Davey Pearl would be able to count to a hundred. But by the count of five, Holmes rose to his feet.
“Larry got up and he wasn’t happy,” laughed Shavers, who was stopped by Holmes in the 11th round. It was the last time Shavers would challenge for a title, but he would go on to fight several more years until a final loss to Brian Yates in 1995, ending his stellar career with a 74-14-1 record that included a remarkable 68 wins by knockout.
Those knockouts cemented Shavers’ place in boxing history, and if he’s not given recognition as the biggest heavyweight puncher to ever step between the ropes, he’s certainly in the top five. And in a dose of hope for prospective knockout artists, the Alabama-born Shavers doesn’t count his power as a natural gift.
“When I first walked into the gym back in 1967, it was in Youngstown, Ohio,” he recalled. “The trainer put the gloves on, I moved around a little and BOOM. He said, ‘Man, can you punch.’ I thought, ‘Wow, where’d that power come from?’ But I grew up on a farm and I did a lot of hard work. I did a lot of chopping, throwing bales of hay, working in wheat fields, so that made me strong. And I could punch pretty good. So that’s where it came from.”
It’s what made Shavers one of the most feared heavyweights ever, and his shaved head didn’t hurt the intimidation factor either. Remember, this is the 70s, where shaved heads weren’t the norm. Shavers and Marvin Hagler cornered the market on that look, and they embraced it.
“A couple of my friends came up with the idea,” said Shavers. “Archie Moore, my trainer, came up with it, and Larry Holmes and a few of the guys mentioned it. They said, ‘Earnie, the way you punch, you shave your head and don’t smile, you’ll put the fear of God into these guys.’ And it worked.”
If the look didn’t get them, the right hand did, all this with Shavers not turning pro until he was 24. It wasn’t the ideal situation, and his team knew it.
“I was told, ‘You get off-track, you may not get back on,’” he recalled, so it was going to be a carefully crafted road to the top, but not careful in the modern sense of the word. In the 70s, a heavyweight would have ample opportunity to make noise. But he would have to deliver against dangerous competition, something you don’t see these days.
“Now most of the guys hand-pick their opponents,” Shavers said. “We didn’t hand-pick. We just fought everybody. And I’m glad I fought in that era because it taught me how to fight, take care of myself and earn a name. But now they hand-pick them and when you fight a top guy, you get beat. You’ve gotta start a guy and let him fight. That’s how I started. I started late, so my trainer said, ‘Earnie, you cannot afford to make any mistakes, so listen to me.’ I did everything he said to do – hard work, training, no smoking, no drinking. The worst habit I ever had – one time – I bought two scoops of ice cream instead of one – and that’s it. (Laughs) But he told me what I could do if I took care of myself and trained hard and listened to him. And I did, and it opened doors for me – money wise and everything else.”
Over the course of his career, Shavers defeated the likes of Norton, Jimmy Ellis, Ron Stander, Vicente Rondon, Joe Bugner, Jimmy Young and Roy Williams, while also facing off with Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle and James Tillis. And while many refer back to the Holmes series when thinking of Shavers, his biggest bout was in 1977, when he challenged for Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight title.
“We were friends for years,” said Shavers of “The Greatest.” “Ali taught me a lot. I met him in ‘73 and we fought in ‘77. When I fought Jimmy Ellis, he talked to me about it. I said, ‘Ali, I’m going to knock Jimmy out. I’m going to hit him on the chin and knock him out.’ He said, ‘You can’t do it.’ I knocked him out in the first round and he said, ‘S**t, can you punch.’”
Ali found that out first hand when the two clashed in Madison Square Garden. And while Ali would leave the ring with a clear-cut 15 round decision via scores of 9-6 twice and 9-5, the bout was closer than those scores would indicate, with Shavers delivering more than his fair share of punishment over those 15 rounds. And though he didn’t get the belt that night or in the rematch with Holmes, Shavers is content knowing that he made an impact on the sport.
“We had some great fighters like Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, Ali and all those guys, and I’m glad I fought in that era because when you fought in an era like that, even though I didn’t win the title, people are gonna remember me and who I am,” he said.
He’s right. Even a newer generation of boxing fans know Shavers through the wonders of YouTube, and while his career was one for the books, there were two fights that never happened that would have only added to his legend.
“George Foreman and Joe Frazier,” said Shavers. “I wanted to fight those guys but we never got together. But other than that, I think I fought most of all the other guys from that era.”
Shavers vs Frazier and Shavers vs Foreman? Wow. What epics those two bouts would be.
“Joe Frazier said, ‘Earnie, you’ll knock me out because I come to you,’” said Shavers. “I told him, ‘I’m glad I never fought you because you’re from South Carolina and I’m from Alabama.’ (Laughs) George Foreman said, ‘Earnie, Archie Moore trained you and trained me. Archie told me to leave you alone because you punch too hard and you’re bad. So I’m glad I left you alone.’”
So does Shavers believe he would have won those bouts?
“I think so,” he said. “I wasn’t just a big guy. I could punch too. But when two great heavyweights fight, it’s like going to court. You don’t know how it’s gonna come out until you get in there.”
Shavers laughs, and life is good for him. He’s going into the NVBHOF, he’s got his health, and he’s got a legacy to be proud of. Any way you slice it, that’s a happy ending in a sport that doesn’t have too many of them.
“I do an autograph signing five days a week,” Shavers said. “I get 20 calls a month to come here or there, and it’s unbelievable. I’m glad I took care of myself, and I’m glad I listened to all the coaches I had along the way. I’m 73 years old, perfect health, and I make a good living, so I have no complaints. I had a great career, I’m glad I fought who I fought and it worked out well for me.”
For more information on the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame, please visit www.nvbhof.com