The Greatest Slugfest You’ve (Probably) Never Seen
By W. Gregory Guedel/Eastside Boxing
Displays of raw power and aggression in the ring help make boxing one of the most compelling and dramatic of sports, particularly in the Heavyweight division. While purists can appreciate the technical expertise of slick boxers like Jimmy Young or Chris Byrd, the casual fan is drawn to Heavyweight boxing by the lure of elemental brute force, usually personified in the type of fighter commonly referred to as a “slugger”. These pugilists eschew the finesse of defensive boxing, relying instead on overwhelming strength to batter their opponents into submission. Often they are blessed with a physical stature that intimidates even before a single a punch is thrown, thus enhancing the anticipation of potential destruction to come.
Occasionally, two such fighters will be paired against each other in a match. If both are on their game, the results can be explosive. Thrilling match-ups of this ilk are readily recalled, such as Foreman-Frazier and Ibeabuchi-Tua, and are among the fights perennially listed as “most entertaining” for spectators. Although most of these bouts are well-known and have been televised any number of times, there are other spectacular matches that for reasons unknown have received far less publicity and acclaim.
A perfect example is a seldom-seen fight that took place in Denver, Colorado on September 13, 1975. This bout possessed all of the action, physicality, and drama of any big-time clash – but almost none of the media coverage. The few films of the match that can be found are grainy and often without sound. Yet even on a diminished medium, the power, effort, and determination displayed in the ring is stunning to behold. The combatants: Ernie Shavers and Ron Lyle.
The Shavers-Lyle battle was fought in the midst of what is widely considered the “Golden Age” of Heavyweights. The 1970’s produced legendary champions named Ali, Frazier, and Foreman, as well as a bumper crop of highly competitive fighters who would easily be top contenders in the contemporary era. Shavers and Lyle both belonged to this group of “almost champions” who gave the kings of the division all they could handle on numerous occasions. In the Fall of 1975, both were in the thick of the Heavyweightpicture and working toward title shots. On this night in September, their similar styles and abilities would result in a heavy-artillery shootout that gave fans at ringside twice their money’s worth in half the time.
To this day, Ernie Shavers is widely considered one of the hardest punchers in the history of boxing. His record supports the claim: of his 74 victories, 68 came by way of knockout. When Tex Cobb was once asked by a reporter how hard Shavers hit, Cobb placed a phone book against the man’s chest, punched it, and sent the scribe flying into a sofa. “That’s how hard he hits” was Cobb’s reply. Shavers favored a straightforward attack that brought his punching force to bear early. Prior to his match with Lyle, only 6 of his fights had lasted past the 5th round.
Ron Lyle was a menacing-looking figure with a background to match. He learned to box while serving time in a Colorado penitentiary, where he claimed his cell-bound training regimen included cranking out 2000 push-ups per day. Standing six-foot-three and hugely muscled, Lyle exuded power and put it to good effect, notching 31 knockouts in his 43 career victories. Despite their well-earned reputations for power-brawling, both Lyle and Shavers were surprisingly introspective and well-spoken in interviews, a remarkable contrast to their primal approach to boxing.
As their match got underway, it was clear from the beginning that it would not be a ballet. Both men tested each other with heavy shots in the early going, and in volume. In the first round, after about 30 seconds of maneuvering, Shavers slammed a hook into Lyle’s midsection and drove him into the corner. From that blow, both fighters seemed determine to outmuscle the other with power shots. Lyle started fighting off the ropes, with Shavers seemingly intent to keep him there. Both men were well within each other’s range, and few blows failed to find a point of impact. At several points in the round, Shavers and Lyle were both in turn almost doubled-over by the force of their respective body shots, and by the end of the first stanza the crowd was on its feet.
The second round started off with a more tactical approach, with Lyle seeking to use his reach advantage to keep Shavers at range and Shavers working to maneuver Lyle back to the ropes. Just when it appeared that the first round’s action might have been an aberration, lightning struck. Shavers fired a left hook that connected with Lyle’s jaw, causing his head to snap back as if he’d been shot. The blow seemed more than sufficient to demolish the average single-family home, and Lyle’s huge frame slumped to the canvas in the corner. Amazingly, Lyle somehow managed to rise before the count of ten, and was granted mercy for his act of will as the bell sounded before Shavers could pounce and finish the job.
Following the knockdown in round two, the remainder of the fight is the stuff of boxing legend. Sensing that he had the power to end the fight early, Shavers pressed the action and fired his full arsenal of power shots at every opportunity. Lyle seemed to sense that he needed a dramatic turnaround to regain traction in the bout – or perhaps just to keep the relentless Shavers off of him – and he answered back with salvoes of his own. Lyle often positioned himself with his back to the ropes and utilized counterpunches to score, while Shavers continued to bore in head-first to blast away with hooks and uppercuts. Round after round the fighters produced ferocious and prodigious haymakers, and the momentum of the fight seemed to shift as regularly as the tides. Each man was determined to answer back in kind for every punch he received, and both had the capacity to take and give sledgehammer blows in astonishing volume.
Despite the close-quarters infighting, there were remarkably few clinches to disrupt the action. On numerous occasions, both men leaned their heads into the other’s opposite shoulder (for both rest and balance) but kept their hands free to launch further volleys. After being separated by the referee, there was no jabbing to establish position – huge hooks and uppercuts were thrown without even a pretense of feinting. This was a power struggle to which both fighters committed themselves unconditionally, and each was determined to apply every last ounce of strength and stamina in pursuit of victory.
For those who have not witnessed this epic struggle but wish to do so, the result of the fight will be reserved for the conclusion of this article so as not to spoil the suspense of a truly great boxing match. Suffice it to say that matters came to a dramatic close, in a fashion that will have even seasoned fight fans scrambling for the rewind button. It was a bone-jarring ending, one that put an exclamation point on a magnificent bout, and which drove the Denver crowd to exhilaration and thunderous applause for both fighters.
Both men remained in the top echelon of the Heavyweight division for several years after their clash. Shavers’ first title tilt would come almost exactly two years after his battle with Lyle, when he challenged Ali in Madison Square Garden for the WBA/WBC belts in 1977. Although he took Ali the distance and had him in real trouble during the match, Shavers would fall short by unanimous decision. Two years later, Ernie flattened Larry Holmes in the 7th round of their title match at Caesar’s Palace and came within a stroke of finishing off the champion, but the wily Holmes survived Shavers’ onslaught and came back to score a TKO in the 11th. Ron Lyle had fought Muhammad Ali for the Heavyweight crown in the fight right before his match with Shavers, losing by TKO in the 11th. He would then challenge George Foreman for the NABF belt in 1976, in an equally exciting (and much better known) slugfest that produced numerous knockdowns before Big George scored the winner in the 5th. Although neither Lyle nor Shavers would secure a Heavyweight title belt, their gutsy, all-action battle against each other in Denver was worthy of the highest ideals of any sport.
(Ron Lyle won by KO in the 6th round)