The end of last Friday night's WBC heavyweight-title fight in Las Vegas came not two minutes into the 11th round, when Davey Pearl, the referee, stepped between tottering, defenseless Earnie Shavers and champion Larry Holmes. No, the bout was really over at the close of the seventh, when Shavers, who had been taking a licking, unleashed one of his monumental overhand rights—and hammered Holmes backward onto the canvas at Caesars Palace.
This was the unbeaten Holmes' fourth defense of his title, and at that moment it looked like there might never be a fifth. When Shavers unloads—and connects—the hittee seldom rises. This was Shavers' 66th professional fight and he had won 56 of them by rendering folks senseless. Most heavyweights would rather fight the First Marine Division.
But as Holmes has proved before, he isn't like other heavyweights. Although his eyes were glazed by the thunderous punch, he made it to his feet by the count of five. And, as Pearl tolled on to the end of the mandatory eight, the champ began to jump up and down.
"An ordinary fighter would have stood there dazed and helpless, waiting to be knocked down again," Pearl said later, "but as stunned as he must have been, he reacted the way a smart, seasoned fighter should. The jumping up and down cleared away the cobwebs."
And even as he was regaining his feet, Holmes was regaining his senses. He knew there was no rule that he had to stay near Pearl during the remainder of the eight count. And so, as the jumping tactic cleared his head, it also took him away from the referee—and farther away from where Shavers waited in a neutral corner, thereby gaining him another precious second or two.
Pearl finished his count with 22 seconds left in the round and waved Shavers forward, thinking as he did so that he might be going home early.
Shavers moved in, unloading wild right hands. Holmes grabbed for him and held on. They were broken; Holmes grabbed again. They were broken; Holmes grabbed. The bell rang. The round was over. In effect, the fight was over.
As recently as the afternoon of March 23 the suggestion that Shavers would ever fight Holmes for the title would have been ludicrous. But that evening Shavers knocked out Kenny Norton, the ex-champion. And three months later Holmes very nearly lost to unheralded Mike Weaver.
"All of a sudden everybody started to remember Shavers' big punch, and they began thinking that Larry was no longer indestructible," Richie Giachetti, Larry Holmes' trainer and manager, said. "Well, Larry has never been indestructible. But he is as close as any human will ever get, because when he is hurt he comes back. That's why he is the champion and everybody else is a challenger."
Disgusted with himself over his poor showing against Weaver, Holmes trained for Shavers as hard as he has for anyone. On March 25, 1978 he had fought Shavers in a non-title bout and won all 12 rounds. Now he trained as though Shavers had won the fight. "And I'm not reading any newspapers until after the fight," Holmes said. "They told me Mike Weaver was a lousy fighter. Don't tell me about Earnie Shavers. I don't want to hear it."
The afternoon of the fight Giachetti went to Holmes' room on the seventh floor of Caesars Palace for a final strategy meeting. Giachetti was semiafraid Holmes might be thinking knockout. "Forget about stopping him," Giachetti said. "You don't have to prove anything to anybody but yourself. You have a punch, you don't have a punch, forget all that. Don't challenge this guy."
That night Holmes and Giachetti went to the arena early. ABC-TV, which forked over $3.5 million to telecast the fight, had a TV set placed in Holmes' dressing room. Promoter Don King had paid $4.5 million—of which $2.5 million went to Holmes, $300,000 to Shavers—to assemble a star-studded card, and the champ wanted to see it all.
First up was Wilfredo Gomez, the WBC superbantamweight champ, who went against third-ranked Carlos Mendoza. Gomez finally stopped him in the 10th round. Then unbeaten Sugar Ray Leonard, in his final tune-up before his Nov. 30 welterweight-title fight with Wilfredo Benitez, came on for two minutes and 52 seconds, which was all he needed to rack up Andy Price. Finally Roberto Duran, who is impatiently waiting for his chance for a crack at the welterweight championship, stepped in the ring. Although a bit flabby, at 149½, and not in the best condition, he had enough to decision Zeferino Gonzalez.
Then it was Holmes' turn. At 210, Holmes, who had weighed 215 pounds for Weaver, was fast and finely tuned. For six rounds, jabbing and moving, sliding to his right to keep away from Shavers' power, Holmes was devastating.
At best, the 211-pound Shavers is awkward. Against Holmes, he was clumsy, lunging and missing with wild, looping punches. And by the fifth round Shavers' left eye had started to close. Then, in the sixth, during another of Holmes' repeated flurries, Shavers began to bleed profusely from a cut near his right eye.
As the seventh began it was more of the same. A Holmes' hook split the right eye even more. Grimly, Shavers forged ahead, unloading wild bombs, hoping one would land. And, with 30 seconds to go in the round, one did—a looping shot that caught Holmes flush on the jaw. The champ dropped as though struck by a sledgehammer. But he got up.
When Holmes, still rocky, sat down, his corner was silent. "You can't start yelling right away," Giachetti said. "First you have to try to revive them." Giachetti broke an ammonia capsule under Holmes' nose. Then, as Giachetti went to work with cold water, Freddie Brown, the assistant trainer, broke another ammonia capsule.
Only then did Giachetti talk. "Look at me," he ordered. "Go out there and double jab. Hit and move. Move to the right, keep away from his power. Do you hear me? Do you?"
Holmes nodded, then said, "Yeah."
"Tell me back."
Holmes repeated the instructions.
Giachetti, satisfied, nodded. "O.K. then go out and do it."
Fully recovered, Holmes went back to work. By the end of the eighth round Shavers was so exhausted he almost fell in his corner at the bell.
In the ninth Shavers threw a desperation right and caught Holmes, who was off-balance, high on the arm. Holmes went down again. Pearl correctly ruled it a slip.
"By then," Pearl says, "I don't think Earnie had enough left to knock me down."
In the 10th and 11th rounds Shavers steadily weakened. At times he would fall back into the ropes, his arms at his sides. Then, goaded on by his great will, he'd wade in to take more punishment, his face masked with blood.
By now Holmes was looking for Pearl to stop it. "I just didn't want to hit him anymore," the champ says.
At one point in the 11th Pearl stepped in and looked at Shavers' battered right eye that later would need 29 stitches. "Want me to stop it?" Pearl asked.
"No," Shavers said.
The fight lasted two more punches.
As Shavers stumbled back to his corner, Holmes followed him. Putting his arms around the beaten challenger, Holmes whispered, "I love you. You're a great fighter. You're a man."
The same goes for you, Larry.