He did not buy the kind of place he really wanted, the kind he had envisioned as a kid—a great big Southern Colonial mansion, with lofty white pillars and live oaks shading the stately facade. "Like my master used to have," says Earnie Shavers, breaking into laughter. "Well, no, not really...."
The place he found not long ago isn't exactly the fulfillment of his youthful dream, but it is close enough in size and elegance that any antebellum plantation owner would have been proud to call it home. Pressing matters having taken him away from the mansion these days, Shavers carries around a sales brochure describing it, as if to remind himself how far he's come to get where he's at, which is right there in Mecca, Ohio.
"The very finest estate in Trumbull County," reads the brochure. "Deer roam the 70 acres surrounding this beautiful 3-year-old French Normandy manor house that overlooks a stocked lake. One wing 40 x 60 encloses a 22 x 40 heated indoor pool for year-round swimming. Seven bedrooms, three suites, seven full bathrooms with gold fixtures, two half-baths, sauna and steam room. Easily accessible with private landing field and hangar."
Shavers acquired this palatial abode about four months ago, but he has yet to spend much time in it. His wife La Verne and their five little girls moved in a few weeks ago. Though a family man at heart, Shavers could not be there for the move from nearby Warren. He was in the Cats-kills in upstate New York, running the slopes of the golf course at the Concord Hotel, sparring and skipping rope in the hotel gym, living in relative solitude in a split-level house on a side road not far from the hotel. In short, training for his second—and surely his final—chance to become heavyweight champion of the world. Shavers is scheduled to meet Larry Holmes, holder of the World Boxing Council's version of the title, this week in Las Vegas. Until then, his manor will have to wait.
September 30, 1979
"Cost me $575,000 for everything, ducks and all," Shavers says. "Plenty of room for everything. Each kid has her own bathroom, her own bedroom. The girls want a couple of sheep. One wants a pony. Lots of fish in the lake: bluegill, bass, catfish, sunfish. And I'm going to stock it with walleyed pike. Ken Norton closed the deal; Larry Holmes will pay it off."
Norton indeed closed the deal—and perhaps his career as a serious heavyweight contender—last March in Las Vegas. In the first round the former champ made the unpardonable mistake of backing away from Shavers and lapsing into a take-and-counter rope-a-dope. Closing in as Norton backed off, Shavers froze him with sharp blows to the body, forcing Norton to drop his guard, and then caught him with a terrible swift left hook to the temple that unplugged Norton's faculties. The rest was almost a formality. With Norton helpless, Shavers threw more punches in the ensuing minute than he had thrown in any five rounds in his life. He finished up with a stinging left hook that toppled Norton and a right hand that clipped him as he went down. Miraculously, Norton regained his feet, but he went down again when Shavers hit him with a right uppercut. With astonishing swiftness, Shavers had not only earned the down payment on his house but also set up the championship fight with Holmes.
"I've sacrificed and worked hard for what I have," Shavers says. "A lot of guys wouldn't fight me, figuring they'd get killed. Like Norton. He was scared to death of me. He wouldn't look me in the eyes before the fight. The Garden once offered him $1 million to fight me, but he turned it down. But he had to fight me this time to get a shot at the title. It was as simple as that."
Few things have been as simple as that in the life and career of Earnie Shavers. The Norton bout summed up Shavers as a fighter. No fighter in the world can hit a man more devastatingly than Shavers can, or do it as readily with either hand. Not since the days of Sonny Liston has there been a puncher—a banger, in the argot of the fight game—of Shavers' power. But going in against Norton, Shavers, 35, had been written off as an aged elephant ready for the walk. His first-round knockout changed all that. And not too surprisingly, because such is the nature of the puncher. When boxers lose their legs, they fade away, and the legs are the first things to go; old bangers linger on, for their punch is the last thing to forsake them.
Shavers' dismantling of Ken Norton marked the 55th time in 65 pro fights (he has won 57 of them) that he has knocked out his opponent. Of the 55 KOs, 51 have occurred before the end of the fifth round, 42 before the end of the third. True, in his 10-year career, Shavers has fought a lot of nobodies in some very outback places—Stateline, Warren, Bryant, Beaumont and Monroeville. But the cold stats remain: no fighter in modern history has knocked out a higher percentage of his opponents than this son of a former Alabama sharecropper. One more KO and unimaginable wealth would have been his. On Sept. 29, 1977 Shavers was a half-punch away from winning the heavyweight championship and becoming the first fighter to knock out Muhammad Ali. Shavers hit Ali a blow in the second round that had the champ on dream street. Ali, his legs buckling, deftly went into one of his routines, wobbling his legs and widening his eyes as if to feign astonishment. Thinking Ali was faking, Shavers stayed away. Had he bored in, throwing everything he had, surely the champion would have gone. Ali won the fight, one of his most desperate, on a decision.
"I don't think there's a man alive who can take a full-force Shavers punch more than once," says Madison Square Garden's vice-president John Condon.
"He's on a par with Liston as a puncher," says Gil Clancy, the former trainer of George Foreman. "Foreman was a clubber. Earnie has more snap in a punch than George had. Earnie can probably hurt you more with one punch."
Shavers' power is natural, and he began getting the maximum out of it when he was young. He has labored most of his life. Born in Garland, Ala., where he picked cotton when he was little more than a toddler, the 5-year-old Shavers moved North with his family in 1949 to a small homestead in Newton Falls, Ohio. Along with nine siblings, he spent his childhood there. His father, Curtis, worked in a car-bumper factory, and his mother, Willie Bell, was a maid in the Christ Episcopal Church in nearby Warren.
On their farm of about 20 acres, they raised livestock—a couple of goats, a few sheep, some chickens and pigs, a cow or two. They made their own butter and grew beans, corn, tomatoes and a little wheat, mostly for their own consumption. They had a big field of strawberries, which the Shavers girls sold at a roadside stand. They were up early, milking and plowing, and they worked late. Earnie was a hired hand in a neighbor's fields, too, cutting hay, harvesting corn, threshing and lifting giant sacks of wheat. After school he also worked at a local motel, planting and weeding flowers, and he earned extra money trapping small animals—muskrats and weasels mostly—on the family property. "That's how I made my Christmas money," Shavers says. "I'd sell furs, a couple of hundred dollars worth a year. We never had a lot of money, but we always had plenty to eat. We had nothing to waste, but we got by."
Out of this experience grew Shavers' almost obsessive sense of family, his consuming interest in the security of his wife and kids. Speak to him about anything—about why he fights, a business he does not particularly like, about the past and the future and the manor house in Mecca—and his talk inevitably comes round to his kin, his kids especially, and home and security.
On the fight with Holmes: "This is all my dreams, my wife's dreams, my kids' dreams, things we've thought about—security for the family. I've had a good life, a full life; I've had all I ever wanted. Now I'm looking out for the kids."
On fighting for a living: "I don't love the fight game. It's just a means of getting security. You ever see a lion tamer who enjoys his job? When I go from the fight game, that's it."
On hurting people in the ring: "Just a job. No one'll take care of my kids but me. I don't hate the guy, but I want him out of there. It's security for the family."
So goes the litany. He has been a provider for virtually all his life. When he graduated from Newton Falls High in 1963 he turned down scholarships to play small-college football to go to work for the B&O Railroad laying track and ties. For three years he was employed at the Polson Rubber Co. making inner tubes. From there he moved to Republic Steel, where he chipped and ground the edges off red-hot ingots as they came out of molds. It was a hot and nasty job, and he would sweat off 10 pounds a day. Shavers was married by then, to his high school sweetheart, and raising a family. "He was always looking around for a better job, for something to improve himself," LaVerne says. Leaving Republic, he went to work for General Motors, fitting bumpers with lights and rubber tips.
In 1967, while at GM, a friend suggested that Shavers come down to the gym. Is there an older story in boxing? Shavers went, of course, and found out soon enough that he could bang. "I knew the first day in the gym that I could punch," he says. "Boom! One punch and I hurt 'em." Thirty months later he knocked out Charles Elder of the U.S. Navy to win the National AAU heavyweight title. "You kept hearing about all the money in boxing." Shavers says, "This guy makes $50,000, that guy $100,000." So he left GM in 1969 to turn professional.
He was a banger from the beginning, knocking out Red Howell in the second round of his pro debut in Akron, and in his first four years as a pro, he lost only twice. In Shavers' third fight Stan Johnson decisioned him—"a little cutie," Shavers says, "a hit-and-run guy"—and Ron Stander stopped him in five in 1970. There was a stretch in which Shavers knocked out 27 straight opponents, making a name for himself as the quintessential headhunter. They dropped like flies. Jimmy Young went in three in February 1973, and four months later Jimmy Ellis fell in one. But throughout this period, Shavers' stamina was questioned, because his fights rarely went long enough to test it. When they did, he had a tendency to tire and loop his punches. And his chin became suspect, too. Six months after he dispatched Ellis, Shavers was knocked out by Jerry Quarry in the first round.
Those were hard days for Shavers. He had been fighting professionally for four years, often in obscure arenas against nameless opponents for very little money, and he was having trouble getting fights. Headhunters are often out of work. Sometimes he wished he had stayed on the bumper line at General Motors. There was the day when a fight with George Chuvalo fell through at the last minute. Shavers packed his gear in his beat-up blue station wagon and drove home to Warren. "He had pots and pans and boxing gear in the back," says LaVerne. "He looked like one of those prospectors. All he needed was a mule." As Shavers unloaded his gear, LaVerne put it back in the car.
Shavers had had it. "I quit," he told her. "I'm giving it up. I'm going back to GM."
La Verne bristled. At first she had not wanted him to fight, but now, after all this time, she could not see him giving up. "You're not going to quit because someone else has problems," she told him. "If you quit, then quit for your own reasons. I can't see you quitting like this."
Shavers decided to stick it out. "But I was depressed, really depressed," he says. "One time we had eight, nine fights in a row that fell through." And he was not getting along with his manager, Blackie Gennaro, who was taking half his purses. Shavers tried more than once to buy his way out of his contract with Gennaro, but failed every time. "He wanted outrageous amounts of money," Shavers says.
Shavers foundered through 1974 and 1975, hitting the bottom when Ron Lyle knocked him out in six, but he re-emerged suddenly and dramatically by knocking out Henry Clark in September 1976 and then came back in a desperate finish to punch out Roy Williams. That led to the title shot against Ali in the fall of 1977, a $300,000 payday and a national name. Which led, in turn, to Shavers' first fight with Larry Holmes, who danced and jabbed him silly for 12 rounds, making the embarrassed Shavers look like the oldest man in boxing. "After being off for five months, we had only 4½ weeks to get ready," Trainer Frank Luca says. "Blackie Gennaro wouldn't let us go into training because the contracts hadn't been signed."
Shavers sighs. "Gennaro had me so confused, I'm lucky I did anything right. He wouldn't spend the money before a fight. We argued and fought every doggone day. There was only confusion. Every day Gennaro was crying about spending money: 'Cut down expenses. You got too many guys in camp. How much is your food bill?' I couldn't think. My mind was always somewhere else. But that's over now. The main thing now is I can think. My mind is clear."
Shavers bought out Gennaro for $40,000 after the Holmes fight. It was a new, streamlined Shavers who fought Norton, Luca says, and Holmes will be seeing the new model this week. The headhunter, nearing middle age, says he has discovered that there's a body to be had down below. It was body punching that froze Norton, and Shavers intends to use more of the same on Holmes. "The body slows everything down right now" Shavers says. "Ask Norton. My trainer always says, 'Go to the body. Go to the body.' The guy's right. Learning the fight game is a long process—experience. A lot of guys fight their whole lives and never learn. I'm thinking now. You hit 'em in the body, it takes all the fight out of them. I started seeing it before the last fight, before Norton. I was cracking up ribs, and sparring partners were complaining. One guy started wearing a ski jacket because I was busting him up so bad. Holmes doesn't have that strong a body. I'll cut the ring off, put pressure on him, make him fight, slow him down, hit the body."
Shavers listens as Luca leans forward. "Earnie's thinking how to totally destroy an opponent. He used to stay upstairs too much. He's a better fighter. He'll be training nine weeks for this fight, just as he did for Norton. Holmes is going to be shocked to find a different man in front of him. I don't think the fight will go five rounds. This is Earnie's golden opportunity. Few men get a chance to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world once in their lives. He's in for the second time, and he knows what it means to him."
What it will mean, after nine long weeks of training in the Catskills is a one-way ticket back to Mecca. There's that new house to settle into and muskrat to trap and sheep to buy and bass to catch. He will bring the title home, he says, and savor it and all it means: "A million for the first defense, right?"