Larry Holmes (left) is hit with a right hand from vaunted power-puncher Earnie Shavers during their heavyweight title fight at Caesars Palace on Sept. 28, 1979 in Las Vegas, Nev. Holmes, who says Shavers was the hardest puncher he ever faced, was dropped in the seventh round but got up to defend his WBC title with an 11th-round TKO.
It is human nature, one supposes, to compile lists for anything and everything. A cornerstone of late-night television host David Letterman’s popularity is his whimsical “Top 10 List” segment. Errant spouses receive “Honey-do” lists of household chores to perform when they aren’t slipping off to the golf course or to the neighborhood tavern for a cold one.
Boxing analysts, and just plain fans, are no different when it comes to an obsessive need to arrange things in some kind of order. It’s why there are so many pound-for-pound lists, HBO Sports’ Jim Lampley’s “Gatti List” (for fighters whose bouts are always exciting) and, of course, lists for the most devastating punchers. All sports fans are enthralled by demonstrations of power, whether it comes in the form of tape-measure home runs, rim-rattling slam-dunks or turn-out-the-lights knockouts.
There were two sudden endings in Bethlehem, Pa., last Thursday night, during a seven-bout professional fight card at the Sands Bethlehem Events Center. Junior welterweight Jason Sosa (10-1-3, 6 KOs) deposited the very unlucky Tyrone Luckey (5-4-1, 5 KOs) on the canvas with a crushing left hook to the midsection in the second round of a scheduled eight-rounder, and Luckey remained on his hands and knees, gasping for breath, for over two full minutes. Then, in the main event, welterweight Ronald Cruz (19-2, 14 KOs) roused himself from a bout-long stupor to starch Alberto Morales (11-3-1, 8 KOs) with two knockdowns in the 10th and final round, much to the relief of Cruz’s anxious promoter, J Russell Peltz.
But the really big hitters were the four aging men who were seated at ringside, watching fighters 30 or 40 years their junior attempting to summon some of the quick-strike devastation they so routinely delivered during their remarkable ring careers. Five-division former world champion Thomas “Hitman” Hearns was there for what was billed as “Legends of Boxing” night, as were stellar heavyweights Larry Holmes (from nearby Easton, Pa.), Gerry Cooney and Earnie Shavers. Collectively, that quartet of graybeards – Shavers, at 68, is the oldest and Hearns, at 54, the youngest – compiled a record of 232-28-2 with 184 victories inside the distance. It’s little wonder that quite a few of the paying customers ponied up a bit more of their disposable income to attend an earlier meet-and-greet with the legends, their tickets providing them the privilege of having the Fab Four sign autographs and pose for photos.
As first-ballot inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, local hero Holmes and Hearns were the most accomplished of the legends in attendance. But much of the buzz, as always, centered around the shaved-skull and still menacing Shavers, who isn’t enshrined in the IBHOF, never won even an alphabet-soup version of the heavyweight title and was stopped himself in seven of his 14 defeats.
That’s what happens when there are a whole lot of boxing folks who will swear that Shavers was, and to this day remains, the biggest bopper ever among boxing’s big men. To hear some tell it, “The Acorn” – the nickname Muhammad Ali gave him, and which has stuck to him like lint on Velcro – could send an opponent to lullaby land with a single shot more emphatically than anyone, including such dependable power sources as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Max Baer, Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Mike Tyson and Wladimir Klitschko.
“You think some puffed-up cruiserweight is gonna scare me?” fringe heavyweight contender James “Quick” Tillis said in July 1988, a few days before he was to be the guy across the ring for the heavyweight debut of undisputed cruiserweight king Evander Holyfield in Stateline, Nev. “Man, I been in there with the best. I fought a bald-headed guy named Earnie Shavers, who was the baddest dude in the world. He hit so hard, he could turn goat milk into gasoline.”
It should be noted that Tillis beat Shavers, on a 10-round unanimous decision on June 10, 1982. If fighters who bested him felt that way, what about those whom Shavers put down for the count with that overhand right delivered with the force of a runaway locomotive?
Not surprisingly, Shavers has considered the question of listing the heavyweight division’s premier knockout artists and he casts his vote for ÔÇª himself.
“Number One,” he responded when asked where he should land on any such list. “No one can outpunch me, except God.”
Holmes, who held the title for 7¾ years and made 20 successful defenses, second only to Louis’ 25, knows what it was like to be on the receiving end of one of Shavers’ explosive rights. In fact, there is a widespread belief that the “Easton Assassin” never stood taller than he did when he arose, on wobbly legs, after Shavers dropped him in the seventh round of their Sept. 28, 1979, title bout at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. But Holmes, who had previously outpointed Shavers on March 25, 1978, staved off the challenger’s desperate attempt to close the show, and went on to win on an 11th-round TKO.
“I always tell Earnie that he hit me too hard,” Holmes said with a skewed reasoning that apparently makes sense only to him. “If he hadn’t hit me quite so damn hard, he would have knocked me out for sure. That punch actually kind of woke me up when I hit the floor.
“Man, I still got knots in my head where he hit me. Earnie could punch very hard, incredibly hard. I hear people say, ‘Aw, man, he couldn’t possibly have hit that hard as everybody says.’ They think that the stories about Earnie’s power are exaggerated. It’s no exaggeration. That power was real.”
Shavers, born in Garland, Ala., raised in Warren, Ohio, came by that awesome power naturally, with some help from his upbringing on a farm. You spend a lifetime doing what farm kids are obliged to do every day, you can’t help but develop an impressive set of muscles that are adaptable to what fighters do.
“My back and legs got built up from toting bales of hay, from chopping trees for a wood-burning furnace,” Shavers recalled. “That’s where your punching power comes from – your legs and your back.”
But while there is a distinction between baseball players who not only can produce tape-measure shots when they connect just so, but become Hall of Famers because their skill set includes the ability to hit for average, run, throw and field at an exceptionally high level, so it is for one-trick ponies with padded gloves on their fists. The knock against Shavers is that, although his big punch made him special in an obvious way, he lacked stamina and the overall abilities of some of his contemporaries. The 1970s to early ’80s represented a golden age of heavyweights whose ranks were populated by the likes of Ali, Foreman, Holmes, Cooney, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Michael Spinks, Ron Lyle, Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Young, George Chuvalo, Oscar Bonavena and even cross-generational Floyd Patterson, who won the title vacated by Marciano in 1956.
Shavers stood apart because of the freakish power that carried him to quick knockouts of Norton, Ellis and Young, but his smallish gas tank and own relative inability to shake off a crushing blow cost him in losses via stoppage against Quarry, Lyle, Bernardo Mercado and Randall “Tex” Cobb. His final record of 74-14-1, with 68 KOs, is a hodgepodge of exhilarating highs and plunging lows.
“I used to tense up,” Shavers said when asked about his reputation for being at his most dangerous only through the first four or five rounds, and not so much afterward. “That burned my energy out real quick. I went out there trying to kill everybody.”
Lists, of course, are like noses; everybody has one and not all are alike. In 2003 Shavers was listed as the 10th-greatest puncher of all time by THE RING, which is understandable considering that Ali, Joe Bugner, Holmes, Cobb, Lyle and Norton all tabbed him as the hardest puncher they ever faced. But that list, which encompassed all divisions, had heavyweights Louis (No. 1), Dempsey (7) and Foreman (9) ahead of him, although Marciano (14), Sonny Liston (15) and Tyson (16) all were rated lower.
Another list, of the “hardest hitters in heavyweight history,” was posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Houston on Dec. 27, 2007, and had Tyson at No. 1, ahead of Liston (2), Louis (3), Foreman (4), Marciano (5) and Shavers (6).
In the end, it’s always a matter of opinion, which is the basis of every debate. Earnie puts himself in the top slot, and he figures his take on the matter is as worthy as anyone else’s.
“If I had one fight, one moment, I could do over, it’d be the same fight with Larry Holmes,” Shavers recalled. “I had him hurt. I had him hurt bad. But he got up. I was surprised he got up, and he probably was, too. Most guys I hit like that, they’d still be out today.”
Another regret of Shavers’ is that, when Sylvester Stallone was casting the part of Clubber Lang for Rocky III, he got passed over in favor of Mr. T. The story – which, apparently, is true – is that Shavers’ audition took a wrong turn when he hit Stallone too hard while practicing some in-ring choreography.
“We were circling; I was pulling my punches,” Shavers said during a 2001 interview with ESPN.com’s Ralph Wiley, who was doing a piece on the 25th anniversary of the 1976 release of the original Rocky. “(Stallone) said, ‘Don’t hold back, Earnie. Hit me.’ I said, ‘I can’t do that, Mr. Stallone.’ I could’ve, but I wanted that job, and I didn’t think that would help me get it.
“But he kept pushing me, saying, ‘C’mon, show me something,’ and sort of hitting me. Finally, I said, ‘OK,’ and I give him a little one under the ribs, where the livers of boxers are. Don’t know about actors, but if they got livers, they probably are in the same place. Anyway, Mr. Stallone called time – he didn’t say nothing, just kinda doubled over a little bit and sort of waved his hand – and then somebody helped him out of the ring and to this bathroom or somewhere, and he sent word out later that they couldn’t use me. I guess I blew it.”
It was Wiley’s belief that Shavers wasn’t going to snag the role in any case, because he was so clearly better at delivering punches than lines of badass dialogue.
“Earnie didn’t sound like a killer,” Wiley, who died in 2004, wrote of Shavers’ brush with Hollywood. “He had a voice so light it made Mike Tyson’s Tweety Bird pipes sound like Darth Vader’s. Earnie’s voice would’ve stopped him from being Clubber Lang in Rocky III, even if a sparring session with Stallone hadn’t.”
But Tyson’s Tweety Bird pipes didn’t stop him from appearing in The Hangover movies, or in that one-man stage show that toured the country recently. So maybe there’s hope for Shavers yet to make it onto the big screen.
Anyone up for The Hangover IV? If there’s anyone as familiar as Tyson with inducing day-after headaches in opponents, you have to figure that the Acorn is that guy.
Photos / THE RING