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"The Strongest Puncher in the World"
by Dave Iamele
It you ever saw Earnie Shavers plying his trade under the bright lights within the roped-in canvas, you probably have not forgotten it -- at least if you love boxing half as much as I.
There were many better boxers in ol' Earnie's prime time, actually --let's admit it -- almost everyone he faced in the ring was more proficient and skilled in the art of the sweet science. Earnie was a one-trick pony. He would try for as long as it took to get a bead on his man, and then when he thought he had it, POW!
And man that POW! was something to behold! Shavers is living proof that if you can do one thing really well, then you've got something. While it's undeniably true that Earnie was not a great boxer, he was a thunderous puncher. Lord could that man hit! If boxing consisted of two men standing face to face, trying to punch the livin' bejeasus out of each other, Earnie Shavers would have been the heavyweight champion of the world. In fact, he might still be.
I spoke with "The Acorn," as Ali called him, at the International Boxing Hall of Fame where his time continues to be in demand. The reasons Earnie still draws a large crowd wherever boxing fans are: his great punching power, and the fact that he is one hell of a nice guy. Here is what Earnie had to say:
D.I. -- "Tell me how you got started in boxing way back in the day."
E.S. -- "At the age of 12 I knew I wanted to be a professional athlete. Back then I figured football. I didn't start boxing until I was 22 years old. I was invited to the gym by a good friend of mine who was a welterweight Golden Gloves champ. He kept bugging me about going to the gym, and I got tired of hearing him, so I went just to satisfy him. So, a trainer saw me-I was a pretty big guy-'Oh, a heavyweight! Heavyweight's the cream of the crop.' He told me I could be a champion and make a lot of money. I said, 'What do I have to do?!' [laughs] So, I put the gloves on and got in with a guy who was an ex-Golden Gloves champ-six time-he was a better boxer, but every once in a while I'd get a punch in-whum-he'd go flying across the ring! I said, 'Wow! You see that?!' So, we went one, two rounds, and every time I hit him, he'd go flying. The trainer said, 'Let me train you, you'll become heavyweight champ!' I told him I'd go home and think about it. That was on January 3rd. I went home, thought about it for a whole week, and went back to the gym January 10th and told him that I wanted to be champ of the world. The Golden Gloves opened up on January 17th. I had one week to get ready, so I started training. He said, 'Earnie, you haven't got much time, so I'm gonna teach you two things: stance and how to throw the right hand.' Jab, with the right hand right behind it. He taught me that for a week, and my very first fight I got a first-round knock-out. I didn't believe it! I was in the paper and everything. They started calling me Boom Boom Shavers, and it just took off from there."
D.I. -- "How long of an amateur career did you have?"
E.S. -- "I fought about two and one-half years as an amateur. I won the junior amateur tournament twice, the Cleveland tournament twice, the Ohio State tournament once, and the national AAU heavyweight title in California once."
D.I. -- "After you turned pro, did you hook up right away with Blackie Gennaro?"
E.S. -- "Yeah, that's who turned me pro, Blackie and Dean Chance. I turned pro on November 6, 1969. You see, Dean was a baseball player and Blackie was a pavement contractor, and they became partners. They sat me down and talked to me, and I signed a contract, and we started from there. Dean had the contacts cause he knew a lot of people."
D.I. -- "Dean's still involved with boxing."
E.S. -- "Yeah, he's got the IBA. I'm still affiliated with Dean on a small scale."
D.I. -- "So, then Don King came into the picture."
E.S. -- "What happened … Gennaro and Dean were having some problems, and Don came down to see me and asked me, 'If I bought out Dean Chance, would you mind if I became co-manager?' Well, Don's a good talker, and I said I didn't mind. So, he bought Dean Chance out. I made a big mistake, though. [laughs] Don and Blackie became co-managers, but after about a year Blackie kind of split with Don and they went their separate ways, and Don bought out my contract from Gennaro. But, I should have stayed with Dean 'cause he had the contacts."
D.I. -- "You and Jeff Meritt were Don's first heavyweights."
E.S. -- Yeah, I was the third one, I guess."
D.I. -- "How do you feel about the Don King years when he took over your contract? How did that work out for you?"
E.S. -- "Well … I've heard so many bad things about Don, but I can say we had our differences-a few things didn't add up-but, in the long run I think Don took care of me as well as he knew how at the time. But, when I retired, Don hired me as 'camp director' for about $200,000 a year, so that wasn't too bad." [laughs]
D.I. -- "Tell me about the first big fight you had where you got your big break."
E.S. -- "That would be against Jimmy Ellis, June 18, 1973. Ali, who was a good friend of Don King's at the time, had me go down to his training camp, and Ali told me exactly how to fight Jimmy, 'cause if Jimmy boxes you he will beat you, so you have to make Jimmy try to out-punch you. So, Don King cooked up a plan to try to make Jimmy try to out-punch me, and not out-box me.
A couple days before a workout in New York, King tells Jimmy, 'You can't punch.' So, Jimmy tries to show me he can punch. Then the press attacked Jimmy for beating up on his sparring partners so close to fight time. Then, at the weigh-in, Jimmy Ellis and Angelo Dundee were trying to psyche me out, so Archie Moore-who was working for me-tells me, 'Earnie, pretend that Jimmy killed your mother and your dog and get even with him.' [laughs] So, I just kept staring at him … he'd try to talk with me, and I just stared at him. Then, when he was getting ready to leave, I went over to a security guard and told him to tell that overblown middleweight to make sure he shows up tonight. [laughs] Nice guy that I am! He started to leave, and Archie Moore tells him, 'James, Earnie is an animal, and I'm going to turn him loose on you tonight!' James said, 'I'm gonna hurt him. I don't want any blood on my hands.' Archie told him, 'If you don't want any blood on your hands, then don't wipe your face during the fight!' So, anyway we conned him into trying to out-punch me instead of out-boxing me. During the fight he'd punch me, and I'd bob and weave, and then he stayed too long. I got him with one good shot-BOOM! Ball game's over."
D.I. -- "How did you get such tremendous punching power? You're known as one of the hardest punchers of."
E.S. -- "THE hardest puncher!! I grew up on a farm throwing the large bails of hay and bags of wheat. We had a wood stove, and I did a lot of tree chopping. I built up my back and leg muscles and this gave me a lot of power."
D.I. -- "What about the Ali fight? You almost became champ then."
E.S. -- "Yeah, me and Ali were good friends, and I think I was a little too relaxed. I slept right up 'til fight time! I knew Ali from training camp 'cause we used to train together. I was just too relaxed-my trainer kept telling me not to punch myself out during the fight 'cause Ali could take a good shot, you know? I had him hurt in the second round, and the fight should have been over. If I'd fought my regular fight, I'd have had him. I should have jumped on him and threw punches 'til they stopped it, but I hit him and I backed off. I gave him time to recuperate. Ali and Larry Holmes are two of the guys who can recuperate as fast as I've ever seen! Give 'em a good shot and hurt 'em, and ten seconds later they're O.K. Ali was a master at that. He conned his way out of trouble."
D.I. -- "A couple of years ago I talked to a guy you know a little bit about: Tex Cobb. They showed a few rounds of you and Tex mixing it up, and people were just shaking their heads! Unbelievable action."
E.S. -- "Yeah, [laughs] yeah! Well, Tex-I didn't know who he was at first. When they first called me, I was gonna retire. But, they told me I'd make six figures fighting Cobb. Boy! Six figures! O.K., no problem … but I didn't train like I should have. No excuse because Tex is tough! Tough, tough guy. I kind of underestimated him a little. I came in to fight him not 100%, probably like 85%. That night I had a lot of trouble. I had new shoes, and I kept slipping on the canvas. No excuses because Tex would be trouble no matter what you had on. [laughs] Tex won that fight. He stopped me in the eighth round, I think. He broke my jaw. Tough, tough, tough guy!"
D.I. -- "Was that about the end of the road for you?"
E.S. -- "No, I came out of retirement and fought a couple more years."
D.I. -- "Do you ever think about … what if I had better people behind me? You were so close."
E.S. -- "I don't even think about that. It's all in the past … how are you going to change it? The only thing I think about from time to time … they should have programmed me to not try to go the distance when I fought Ali. You can't beat Ali going the distance. You'll never win. Two minutes left in the second round and I had him out. But, the fight turned out good. I mean, Ali is my idol; I made a name for myself. I'm getting paid more money now then when I fought him! I mean it's unbelievable. I made a million dollars for that fight, but I'm making more now-a year!
Get this: I just left Canada, and a guy gave me $5,000 for my tie! Hee--hee, $5,000! I got two or three more (ties) at home-ha-ha! A guy bought one of my fight posters from me: $8,700! I got two more at home! I mean, it's just unbelievable! I get bookings all over the world to appear."
D.I. -- "You are one of the most popular fighters of an era of great fighters. Fans love you because they love that style of a guy who just goes in there and tries to knock the other guy out. Were you ever in a bad fight?"
E.S. -- "The people like action. I was a star of big punchers. People like to see people get hurt. In England they say, 'we don't like to see people get hurt, we like to see them go out fast, though.' [laughs] I fought in the 70's-the golden era. That was the toughest era of the heavyweights: Ali, Frazier, Henry Cooper, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Tex Cobb, Tiger Williams, George Chuvalo, Oscar Benovena! Myself! Others, too! On any given night the championship could change hands."
D.I. -- "What about the fighters of today … Evander Holyfield, Tyson … how would they have done back then?"
E.S. -- "Well, look, those guys are tough over a poor group of fighters. They wouldn't have done good because there were too many tough guys then. You wouldn't have even heard of them-they would have just been one of the guys. Mike is a good fighter … but you take his heart away … back then everyone had heart! Holyfield's a good fighter, but he's got too much heart for his own good! For a puncher like myself, I would have punched this guy and knocked him dead! For a puncher like myself … you can't walk in and take my punch! If you do, [Earnie looks left, then right] I'm gonna look around and see what's holding you up!" [laughs] D.I. -- "What about big Lennox?"
E.S. -- "Big Lennox. Lennox is a guy that's big and strong. I like Lennox. He's a good fighter, but in the 70's, he's just one of the guys. He's too big. I was small, but no one could out-punch me. These guys put this extra weight on-I was 210 pounds-but it's apt to slow you down, not give you extra punching power."
D.I. -- "If you had come along a little sooner, or a little later, you'd have been creaming these guys?"
E.S. -- "Let me tell you something: I'm glad I came along in the 70's because my name will be remembered forever! I just won the award for greatest puncher of the century. That'll pay me for the next hundred years! The 70's was the golden era; I'm glad I came along then. We didn't make the kind of money they make now, but I got a name, and as long as I keep it clean, that will provide for me for the rest of my life. Now I have bookings all over the world. It's good when you can turn down bookings for $3,000. Three thousand dollars! My God! The key is put your money away! It'll work for you.
D.I. -- "What's the strangest thing that ever happed to you getting ready for a big fight?"
E.S. -- "The strangest thing that happened to me is when I fought Jerry Quarry. Don King and Blackie Gennaro were fighting with each other and making me take sides. These guys fighting among themselves had my mind on that instead of the fight in the ring with Quarry. That hurt me more than anything else. That's the strangest thing that happened to me in my career. It cost me the fight. I lost to Jerry, and there was no way I should have, but my mind was a hundred miles away. Jerry was a good fighter, but I had too much fire power for him. If I had been mentally set, I think I would have taken him out."
D.I. -- "Any final thoughts?"
E.S. -- "Well, I just want to thank all my fans for their support over the years. It's unbelievable. I speak all over the world and people always show up-functions, whatever. If it weren't for the fans, I wouldn't be in demand, then I couldn't go out and make these appearances and get paid the way I am, so keep asking for me!" [laughs]
D.I. -- "Thanks for your time, Earnie!"
E.S. -- Thank you for talkin' to me."
If you think Mr. Shavers is overestimating his hitting power or blowing his own horn, consider what the following gentlemen had to say about being hit by Earnie (and I think they ought to know):
Jimmy Young: "If I had to be hit by Earnie Shavers or George Foreman, I would rather not be hit by either one, but if I had to be hit by someone, let it be George Foreman."
Tex Cobb: "Earnie could punch you in the neck with his right hand and break your ankle." Muhammad Ali: "Earnie hit me so hard he shook my kin-folk back in Africa."
Larry Holmes: "Of all the fighters I ever fought, including Mike Tyson, nobody could punch harder … Shavers' punches numbed your bones. Earnie was in a league all his own." Earnie Shavers finished his career with a record of 71 wins with 66 KO's against 13 losses and 1 draw, and came close to winning the heavyweight crown against Ali and Larry Holmes. If these numbers don't add up to Earnie being enshrined in the Boxing Hall of Fame (and I'm not saying they don't!), he will at least always be remembered as a fierce competitor who gave everything he had every time he climbed in the ring. And no one who saw him will ever forget his awesome punching power.
I have spoken with many fighters, maybe not as many as Bert Sugar or Steve Farhood -- hell, maybe not even as many as Slapsie Maxie Kellerman -- but never have I spoken to an ex-boxer as engaging and friendly as the ol' Acorn. If there was a hall of fame for nice guys, Mr. Shavers would surely have been inducted long ago.
To learn more about the fascinating life of Earnie Shavers, read his upcoming autobiography. To be put on the mailing list for the book, please call 303-935-1937 or send your name and address to:
2275 S. Linley Ct.
Denver, CO 80219