Behold the puncher, the ever-dangerous man in the ring. Behold Earnie Shavers, who will face Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world in two weeks. Despite Shavers' credentials—52 knockouts in 54 victories, 33 of them in a row, 32 first-or second-round KOs—the critics remain underwhelmed. Angelo Dundee, who trains Ali, compares Shavers with Bob Satterfield, the up-and-down sensation who enlivened the early days of televised boxing. "Shavers is a do-or-don't fighter," Dundee says.
Either way, he keeps busy, at times too busy for his own good. After 17 amateur bouts around his hometown of Warren, Ohio, he won the national AAU heavyweight title in 1969. He turned pro with a vengeance, taking three fights—in Akron, Orlando, Fla. and Seattle—in a nine-day period, winning two and suffering the first of his five losses, to the then-and still-obscure Stan Johnson.
"I've heard it all about me," says the 6', 216-pound Shavers. "They say, 'That guy's a dog. That guy's got no heart. That guy can't fight.' " Shavers recalls that his former manager, Don King, expressed the same sentiments after Shavers had been knocked out by Jerry Quarry in the first round. "Now King comes around with this 'Brother, we got to get together' stuff," says Shavers, savoring the moment. King was not alone in dismissing Shavers after the Quarry fight. "There were a whole mess of people who now call me brother, cuz or honey, who didn't know my name the day I lost," says Shavers. "It was like a covey of quail scattering before a rain cloud."
All told, Shavers has been knocked out three times, by Ron Stander in the fifth round in 1970, by Quarry in 1973 and by Ron Lyle in the sixth round in 1975. Win or lose, fight fans are convinced Shavers tends to run out of gas. It is a theory that is difficult to prove or disprove. Indeed, he has only gone the full 10 rounds eight times, but then, in most of his fights he didn't need to.
Whatever, Shavers now talks of a new beginning for an old team. He is back with his original co-manager, Blackie Gennaro, a millionaire road builder from Youngstown, Ohio, and Trainer Frank Luca.
Luca is sometimes called Lucas, as in "my man Lucas," articulated with an English accent by Shavers when Luca is chauffeuring him. The little trainer willingly accepts the role of servant; he, too, was once a Don King employee and was fired. Now he is the indispensable man, and Shavers will not enter the ring if Luca isn't in his corner.
"That Shavers ain't so bad, after all," Earnie Shavers said the other day, enjoying the pastoral view from the picture window of the $150,000, one-bedroom lodge at his training camp in Calcutta, Ohio. Shavers obviously feels it suits a man who will earn some $300,000 by fighting Ali.
The camp mood has been spare and to the point—no entourage, just workers. Gennaro was in the kitchen cooking dinner, Luca was at the door to turn away favor-seekers. After each trip, Luca called out, "We got to put up a gate and get a guard to man it." No distractions, no irritations. While Shavers was out at the grindstone sharpening a lethal array of axes for wood-chopping exercise, Luca said his fighter was relaxed and that, despite the importance of the fight, he had a sense of destiny.
Shavers' euphoria is partly the result of his having convinced himself of the truth of an old boxing maxim: different fighters make for different fights. For example, George Foreman demolishes Ken Norton in two rounds and Joe Frazier in five. Yet Foreman looks foolish against Ali, while both Frazier and Norton fight the champ on even terms. More to the point is the case of Jimmy Young, who nearly beat Ali, nearly became champion of the world—and there are many who insist that he did. Yet the same Jimmy Young was kayoed by Shavers in the first round in 1973 and could only manage a draw in their return bout in 1974. These are the reasons for Shavers' sense of well-being.
"We've all had a series of dreams with Earnie winning by a KO," says Luca, who has his own theory on the mysterious disappearance of the Ali punch, which joins such other explanations as bad hands, boredom and Ali's sweet, loving spirit, which gets in the way of the old killer instinct. "Ali has taken too many punches to the sides and arms," Luca reasons. "All that laying on the ropes and catching punishment has damaged the tissue and nerves." Although this remains a theory, Luca contends that the evidence is irrefutable; in the Alfredo Evangelista fight Ali was pawing with his right, once his most lethal punch. "At times he was lunging, which makes me wonder about his balance," Luca says.
Shavers has no doubts about his own punching ability. "I'm a natural puncher and can take out any opponent." In an April fight he speared Howard Smith with a straight right that sent Smith back into the ropes before he dropped face first to the canvas. "Most of the time it is a right uppercut, left hand, that does the damage," he says. "Sometimes I can feel the flesh separating from the bone."
This ability to disintegrate folks seems to come from his enormous back and shoulders which seem much too big for Shavers' frame. He claims the muscular development comes from chopping cotton as a preschooler in Garland, Ala. before his family moved north. He insists that he can remember a plantation master named Mister Gilmore, who was 8' tall and slightly less loving than Simon Legree. The title of his autobiography, says Shavers, will be something like "Mister Gilmore's Boy Goes North and Makes It Big." He drills home an imaginary hard blow to punctuate it.
Still, preoccupation with the big punch has at times been Shavers' undoing. "I was loading up with every blow and the tension worked against me," he says. In 1975 Shavers had Lyle down for the first time in his career, a short hook in the second round having dropped him for the count of nine. Shavers' camp claims the count was more like 29, because the referee followed Shavers to a neutral corner and didn't resume the count until he had paced back and forth a few times. "We had a priest with us, a proper guy, who got so excited that he jumped up and yelled, 'Son of a bitch, they're robbing us!' " Gennaro says. "After that it's a two-minute rest between rounds. It was awful, but we fought in Denver, Lyle's town, and he doesn't lose there."
Left unsaid was the fact that Shavers was then stopped by Lyle in the sixth round. The midpoint in his fights has been a critical juncture for Shavers in the past. Jimmy Jacobs, the fight-film collector, calls Shavers the most dangerous fighter in the game—for 15 minutes.
Shavers insists he is a new man. No longer does he load up on every punch, growing arm-weary and desperate by the sixth round. "I've learned to relax, to shift my weight and pivot. Six inches is all I need to end the fight," he says.
From the evidence, Shavers has indeed improved as the stakes escalate; for $100,000 he is a more motivated fighter than he was for $50,000. In a bout last year with Roy Williams, a 6'4", hands-up, difficult-to-hit opponent, Shavers began to get the old sinking feeling in the 10th round. Luca, recognizing the symptoms, ran around the ring shouting, "Think of your five girls! Think of their future! Think of what you're doing! Think of the money!" That did it. Shavers straightened up, got down to business and knocked out Williams—which led to the $300,000 purse for the Ali fight.
At 33, Shavers not only aspires to Ali's title, but he also hopes to succeed him as the world's greatest consumer. Gennaro and Luca encourage his dreams, and Gennaro, the 10th child in a poor family of 17, understands such passion. Shavers could not have a better example: Gennaro owns two fire engines as toys, plus a cream and brown 1964 Rolls-Royce.
Shavers also owns a Rolls, a burgundy Silver Cloud bearing Ohio license RD1. He would like to have a home swimming pool in the shape of a boxing glove. The challenger feels he doesn't have much time to indulge high-priced interests; he does not really like boxing. In a precise paraphrase of Sonny Liston he says, "A man has to be crazy to enjoy getting hit on the side of the head." His aversion to the profession is the best of all incentives. Shavers' idea is to win the title, hold it for three fights, 18 months or thereabouts, and run off with all the millions.
But is this likely to happen? Chances are remote. Ali gives nothing away, his title included, and the officials, especially in New York, are unwilling to hand it over. Shavers has the puncher's one chance, the ability to separate a man from his senses. Unfortunately, he is picking on the wrong man. It is only the Ali punch that has mysteriously failed; his chin—and the moves that keep it relatively unendangered—is the best in boxing. That and history are on Ali's side; he has experienced his finest moments against the heavy hitters: Liston, Cleveland Williams, George Foreman.
Still, Luca maintains, "It happens to everyone, even the greatest must come to an end. Are you listening, Muhammad? We're going to stop the world and let you off. We're going to retire you from boxing."