Driving through the evening mist of Martinsville, Va., Earnie Shavers looks like a kindly, peace-loving soul, if a very large, kindly, peace-loving soul. He's Good Old Earnie or Oh, Daddy, depending on your seat in the car, and he talks in a giggling honey voice. Yet Shavers, the greatest heavyweight knockout puncher of this century, is still throwing fearful right hands to make ends meet, five years after he lost to Muhammad Ali, three years after his last title shot—a TKO in the 11th round by Larry Holmes—three years after a detached retina, and 11 months after his 37th birthday.
"Maybe I'm slower," he says, "but I can be slow, as long as I land. I'll take little fights, ones I can't get hurt in, don't train for, and wait for one last payday."
His record is 67-11-1, and 64 of those victories have been KOs, 49 times inside of three rounds. His KO-to-win percentage is .940. George Foreman is second at .933. No other heavyweight is close.
Shavers retired in August 1980 after being stopped by Randall (Tex) Cobb in eight rounds. He unretired and eventually met Jeff Sims on Dec. 11, 1981 in Nassau, the Bahamas. That night, in the main event, Muhammad Ali, whom Shavers couldn't drop but sorely tested in 1977, had no mirrors left for Trevor Berbick.
"Earnie didn't look like Frazier or Ali coming back, did he?" asks LaVerne, his wife of 18 years. "Earnie always gives them a show."
Against Sims, Shavers was dropped in the first round but got up and knocked out Sims with a thunderous right in the fifth.
Since then Shavers has fought at the drop of a hat, if the right denominations were in it. Say $100,000. Would you believe $50,000? A lousy $20,000, you say? He'll get back to you.
Shavers' last fight was on June 22, a fifth-round knockout of one Billy Joe Thomas in Houston just 11 days after he had lost a close 10-round decision to a once-floored James (Quick) Tillis on the Holmes-Gerry Cooney card in Las Vegas.
In the two months before that, Shavers had knocked out Smiley Sutton in Charleston, S.C., Joe Bugner in Dallas and Ali Hakin in Traverse City, Mich. "Broke his jaw and busted his inner ear," Shavers says of the latter. "He was a kid, cocky, but a kid. He wasn't ready for me." Shavers was to have fought this week on the undercard on the postponed Cobb-Mike Weaver WBA title bout, but now his next fight probably won't be until Aug. 17 when he'll meet Walter Santemore in Lafayette, La.
"I get calls every day," Shavers says. "Florida called, wants to make me and Sims again. Money's not right. Just hung up talking to Atlantic City. I pick what I want."
In truth he wants none of what he picks. Need is a different story.
"I've been on the road for 13 years," Shavers says. "I'm tired. The man ended up with the money, and I ended up with the headaches and the epsom salts. It's a cold-hearted business, where out of 23 people, 22 are thieves. I was too nice."
Shavers has been typecast in almost every role the public envisions a heavyweight will play: the all-or-nothing fighter, the one-punch knockout artist, the smart money, the contender, the uncrowned champion, the game battler, the crafty war-horse coming back, the sentimental favorite, the old fool.
"Don't forget the champ," Shavers says. "I was champ for 30 seconds." That is his mental timing of Larry Holmes's stay in the foyer of unconsciousness when Earnie knocked him down in the seventh round on Sept. 28, 1979. "That was the hardest I ever hit anybody," Shavers says. "I said, 'He can't get up. Nobody could get up. Damn, he got up.' "
Holmes, who insists Shavers is the best puncher extant, survived to retain his title. In that fight Shavers suffered a detached retina in his left eye, which was surgically repaired by Dr. Ronald Michels of Baltimore, who later performed similar surgery on Sugar Ray Leonard and Kansas City Chiefs Running Back Joe Delaney.
"Whether you'll fight in that state depends on what state your pockets are in," says Harold Weston Jr., a former welterweight contender whose retina was detached three years ago, whereupon he retired from the ring.
"Each case is different," says Dr. James Schutz, who performed Weston's surgery. "Some are so severe. [Weston] had a giant retinal tear. A giant tear is any over 90 degrees. Weston's was 180 degrees, one of the worst I'd seen."
According to Michels, Shavers' tear was "about 240 degrees." But Michels also says the threat of reoccurrence is no greater than that of occurrence. "His repaired eye is quite sound, comparable to the uninjured eye, and that is as far as we know. The risks do become greater as one becomes older."
Five months after the eye surgery, Shavers was KO'd in seven by Bernardo Mercardo, and five months after that came the loss to Cobb.
"Larry Holmes was without doubt the best I ever fought," says Shavers. "And he was my sparring partner once. So why not come back? There are no more Larrys. I'd fight Gerry Cooney tomorrow. His chin doesn't seem too firm. Imagine. Ten million [the projected payday for both Holmes and Cooney last month]. And I've been fighting for what seems like 50 years. I'll take one $500,000 payday. Why won't Greg Page or [WBA champ] Mike Weaver fight me?"
Shavers could have had a big payday if he hadn't hit Rocky Balboa too hard. In the spring of 1981 Shavers was flown to Los Angeles to do a test for the role of Clubber Lang in Sylvester Stallone's Rocky III.
"We had on 20-ounce gloves," Shavers says. "Sylvester whispers to me, 'I want you to open up on me.' I kept throwing my arms, not punches really. Sylvester says, 'Harder, Earnie! Harder!' I can't take him serious. 'Harder!' he says. O.K., if you insist. BOOM! In the body. His brother said I knocked him off-camera. He went to the bathroom. I hate to think what if the gloves had been smaller."
Shavers didn't get the part. He's thinking about testing for a small role as J.R. Ewing's bodyguard on Dallas, but he refused to go on the road as Dolly Parton's bodyguard. For now, Shavers figures Martinsville and a roped square are road enough. "Money can be made here," he says, going into his simple brick store, Knock Out Janitorial Supply, Inc. Posted on the walls are slogans like OF ALL THE NO GOOD, LOW DOWN, UNSCRUPULOUS, CONNIVING, CHEAP PROPOSITIONS, I LIKE YOURS BEST. Business is "growing," according to Shavers, who took an hour here and there to train for the Tillis fight in a makeshift gym—heavy bag above plywood planking in back of the store.
La Verne Shavers works for her husband and also sells cosmetics and aloe vera products. "That aloe vera helps me heal," says Shavers. "They said after the Tillis fight that the 10-stitch cut over my right eye would suspend me for 21 days. But I fought in Houston 10 days later."
Between fights and supply runs, Shavers makes personal appearances and peddles a gas additive called Mix-I-Go, flashing a testimonial letter from Big Daddy Don Garlits. Everyone is attentive because this is Earnie Shavers, the nice guy with the grin who damn near beat Ali, and besides, Jimmy Adams and Ben Gardner say he's all right.
Shavers was down and out when he met Martinsville's Adams, a former wrestler, in March 1980. They became fast friends, and last August Shavers moved his family to Martinsville. Adams introduced Shavers to Ron Swinney, a banker who saw Shavers' right as good collateral, and Gardner, an attorney who happened to be a lifelong Shavers fan.
For no compensation, Gardner helps Shavers with fight contracts, investment planning, tax shelters and other economic knots his former manager had considered loose ends. "I didn't know what I was doing," Shavers says. "I fought 40 fights for nothing."
Shavers was 22 before he ever put on boxing gloves. He was born in Garland, Ala., but in adolescence knew little beyond Braceville, Ohio, nine siblings, team sports, drag racing and the bumper assembly line at General Motors.
Once the money from boxing started to come in, Shavers "lived above my means. I looked ahead too far. I got there before the money got there."
There was a magnificent house in Mecca, Ohio, valued at anywhere from $338,000 to $575,000, a budding coin collection, a business, Shavers Janitorial Supply. But Shavers hadn't counted on expenses, the IRS and his own rather optimistic arithmetic. He was unaware that the two biggest paydays he ever had—Ali and Holmes, a combined $600,000—could vanish so fast.
"I was paying $400 a month just to heat the pool at that place," he says of his 70-acre estate in Mecca. "It took all day to clean the sewers, two days to cut the lawn. I didn't need that house, and it turned out I didn't want it either."
Mecca crumbled. The IRS hit Shavers with a 1979 tax claim for $172,043. His debt to Trumbull Savings and Loan came to more than $71,000; the bank auctioned the house last September.
"I could have declared bankruptcy," Shavers says. "I just didn't want to do it. The ones I owed knew I could file, so they were patient and got paid. Some are still getting paid. But no one should think I'm bad off, because I'm not."
"We're not bitter," LaVerne says. "Earnie and I don't blame our downfall on others. We just get up."
"We miss our friends in Ohio, that's all," Shavers says. "We still go back. But never to live." Shavers' new Mecca is a rented home in Martinsville's Lakewood Forest—a roof for LaVerne and their five daughters, ages six to 17.
"One more fight could make Earnie secure, if that fight were against Weaver or Holmes," Gardner says.
"Archie Moore fought until he was 50," Shavers says. "So did Jack Johnson." Joe Louis fought until he was 37, including 10 fights after he "retired" in 1949. Many times in Vegas, Shavers had bent over Louis' wheelchair to pay homage. "I'm happy here in Martinsville," Shavers says, "and I don't mind fighting. I just don't like watching. There's a fortune to be made here."
Shavers goes into the shoulder-rolling of a fistfighter. "Four more at most," he says, raising his right fist. "And remember, I'll always have this."