There were two main events, one of them shocking and the other suprising. In the first fight, Earnie Shavers, written off at the age of 34 and a 3-1 underdog, destroyed Ken Norton in just 118 seconds. The fans at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas and millions more watching on national television last Friday night had expected Gentle Ben. Instead, Shavers gave them Attila the Hun. That was the shocker; the surprise in the other fight was that it lasted so long.
When Shavers had finished his brief night's work, on came Larry Holmes, the WBC world heavyweight champion, to demonstrate the difference between an ambush and an execution. It was carefully planned and coldly carried out. For six rounds Holmes stalked his prey. In the seventh, he caught Ossie Ocasio and dismantled him.
Ocasio, the 23-year-old Puerto Rican challenger, was felled first by a numbing left jab. He got up, only to go down again under a straight right that could have been fired by Thor. A short right knocked him down yet a third time. He was game, if not wise. As Ocasio pulled himself upright once more, Richie Giachetti, Holmes' trainer and manager, shouted at Referee Carlos Padilla, "For God's sake, stop it before Larry kills him."
Ignoring both Giachetti and humanitarianism, Padilla asked Ocasio if he wanted to surrender. Absolutely not. So Padilla turned and motioned Holmes forward. Shrugging, the champion came on without haste. He slammed home two right hands and then snapped a left hook to the jaw. With a great shudder, Ocasio crashed to the floor. Yet still once more, with an awesome show of will, he forced himself to his feet.
April 2, 1979
But by now even Padilla realized that the 10-1 underdog with only 13 pro fights had had enough. This time there was no count. "That's all," Padilla said. The end came at 2:38 of the round. "If Padilla hadn't stopped it—and if Ocasio had made it back to the corner—I was going to stop it myself," said Bill Daly, the 82-year-old fight manager who, as legend has it, discovered Ocasio working in a San Juan laundry two years ago.
If Padilla hadn't called a halt when he did, the only way Ocasio would have made it back to the corner would have been on a stretcher. As it was, the fight was permitted to continue two knockdowns too many. There was no excuse for letting the young and inexperienced Puerto Rican take that much punishment. He was being paid $250,000 to fight, not to be demolished.
Ken Norton, who was paid $750,000, was more fortunate. Mills Lane, who refereed that fight, is either a more cautious or a more compassionate man than Padilla. Few fighters have taken the beating Shavers laid on the former champion in just one minute and 58 seconds. Lane permitted Norton to get off the floor once. The second time he was knocked down, and somehow got up, Lane stopped it.
The Shavers victory was spectacularly unpredictable. Almost a year ago to the day, he had looked old and awkward and slow in losing a 12-round decision to Holmes. He was still ranked as the WBC's No. 2 contender, but that was mostly because the talent in the heavyweight ranks is painfully thin. When people spoke of the shaven-headed fighter, it was in the past tense.
But Shavers was hard and fit at 210 pounds (Norton weighed 225) and he and trainer Frank Luca had mapped a strategy. It wasn't really complicated. "I'm going out and hit him on the head," Shavers said.
"And in the body," Luca said.
"He'll last three rounds."
"Two," Luca said.
Then the two men looked at each other and laughed, sharing a private joy. Their happiness was due to millionaire Blackie Gennaro, Shavers' former manager, being dropped from the team nine months ago.
"Nobody knows how that man messed up my mind, nickel-and-diming me to death on expenses," Shavers said. "I had to fight that man every day, and then I had to get in the ring and fight Muhammad Ali, and fight Holmes. Gennaro wouldn't give me any money to train; he wouldn't pay for sparring partners. He'd yell if I ate a $3 steak. He'd say a $2 steak was just as good."
According to financial logs kept by Luca, who is also Shavers' business manager, when Shavers lost to Ali in 1977 his purse was $300,000 (Gennaro got half), plus $25,000 for expenses. "But Gennaro only gave me $8,000 before the fight for expenses," Luca said. "To get ready for a title fight" For the Holmes fight, Luca said, Shavers' purse was $275,000 but Gennaro allowed only $5,000 for pre-fight expenses.
To train for the Norton fight, Luca and Shavers had moved to Vegas nine weeks early. They rented a warehouse and set up their own private gym. A ring was rented; no expense was spared. They took the fight for short money, only $85,000, and they spent nearly half of that for training expenses.
"For me this is the big one," said Shavers. "I can't afford to blow this one. If I do, I'll be like Jimmy Young—in limbo. I'm in the best physical shape possible and my mind is at peace for the first time in years. I'm going out to fight him. If he comes to fight, it's going to be a war."
Norton's plan was not to go to war, at least not early. In winning 56 of 64 fights, Shavers had scored 54 knockouts. No one questioned his power, only his stamina. "He has a tendency to get tight, and when he gets tight, he gets wild," said Bill Slayton, Norton's trainer. "We have to either fight him at a distance or in very close. Kenny has to move in quick and meet him, and make him work inside. The closer Kenny is to a man, the better he is and the better I feel."
The strategy seemed sound. But early in the first round—with Shavers punching at an incredible pace—Norton improvised. First he elected to lie against the ropes and catch and counter. When that didn't work, he then decided to just cover up and let Shavers punch himself out. It was a fatal decision.
Shavers has always had a tendency to loop his punches. But with Norton standing dead still in front of him, Shavers began to punch with newfound discipline. He kept his punches short and tight, and whatever part of his upper anatomy Norton failed to protect with his curious peekaboo defense, Shavers blasted.
In the first minute, Shavers hooked Norton wickedly to the liver and then hooked him to the head, slamming the thunderous punch against the temple. Norton didn't go down, but he was hurt, and the fight was as good as over.
As Norton tried to escape, Shavers chased him, firing at full bore. The 30th punch, a hook, caught Norton flush on the head and he started to fall. The 31st, a right, nailed him as he fell. Rolling over, Norton got up at eight and staggered back against the ropes. He nearly fell again.
Referee Lane wiped off Norton's gloves and stepped back. Shavers stepped in. Once more Norton, like a man sleepwalking, tried to escape. No chance. Shavers hooked him to the head and then jolted him with a tremendous right uppercut that sent Norton tumbling down. The onetime WBC champion rolled over and crawled to the ropes. On instinct alone, he pulled himself up. Slayton leaped up the steps. Lane waved him away. Slayton signaled he wanted the fight ended. Nodding, Lane stopped it.
Now it was Holmes' turn. He was being paid $1.5 million for his second title defense, and he had worked hard. While the rest of the world was downgrading Ocasio, Holmes was sparring 300 rounds. Mostly he worked on his jab. "I've put thunder into it," he said. "I've added power to the right. I've worked as hard for this fight as I have for any. You can't take a man lightly. You have to fight him."
Holmes is a picture boxer. He proved that first against Shavers, then again in taking the title from Norton last June. Now he wanted to prove that he was a devastating puncher. And so he fought flat-footed, his legs widely spaced, punching not for points but to paralyze.
It took Holmes three rounds to solve the unbeaten challenger's unorthodox style. In the fourth round, he began to catch the Puerto Rican with a short right counter over a lunging hook. He used the jab the way a wrecker uses a battering ram. Ocasio was stunned and stunned again, but he wouldn't go down.
Until the seventh round. Then he spent almost as much time on the floor as he did on his feet. Until then, through 13 professional fights, Ocasio had never been down.
Once more Holmes proved what he had set out to prove. He is a deadly and awesome puncher. With every fight he looks better and better. It is hardly his fault that there aren't better heavyweights around for him to batter.
"I'm still around," said Shavers, smiling thinly. "I want to fight him now that my head is right. I've got something to prove, too."
Shavers will probably get his chance in September at a site yet undetermined. That's his reward for beating Norton. But first each will have a tune-up in late May or early June.
Note to the WBA, which still recognizes Muhammad Ali as champion: You might take a look at Larry Holmes. He's not half bad as a fighter.