IT SEEMS that everybody has an Earnie Shavers story to tell and a memory of a meeting, a greeting or a session watching him ruin people in the ring. Nobody on either side of the ropes ever forgets a meeting with Shavers.
Poverty, preaching, testimonials from the greatest in our business, all form a backdrop to the Earnie Shavers tale. The snatched moments, the grainy film of yet another hard, hard man tumbling incoherently to the canvas are all part of his rich history. Shaking his giant hand at midnight outside a bar in Liverpool.
Between the day Shavers turned professional in 1969 and his awful last fight in 1995, I believe that 31 men held a version of the world heavyweight title. Shavers, as you know, never held a belt; truly epic defeats to Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes denied him. And he peaked at a time of truly noble fighting men.
In the decade that Shavers started to fight, Ingemar Johansson was world heavyweight champion; in the decade he finished, Vitali Klitschko was the champion. Some of the men holding the world heavyweight title between Ingo and Vitali were truly great fighters and they would make a sacred list. There were others that were blessed by luck: Lucky timing.
Shavers was right there with the very best, his name is now a glaring omission from the book of champions.
Everybody in boxing knows that Shavers would have won a world title in a different era, in an era where men were cunningly matched and men like Earnie were ignored. He would have beaten claimants like Samuel Peter, Oleg Maskaev, Sultan Ibragimov, Bermane Stiverne, Bruce Seldon, Hasim Rahman, Henry Akinwande, Ruslan Chagaev and perhaps another dozen of the men that won versions of the world title once Shavers had retired. I know, they were not all so-called proper world champions, but they still held a world heavyweight championship belt. Earnie never did.
Ron Lyle, Jimmy Young, Jerry Quarry, Gerry Cooney and Joe Bugner would have also beaten the men on the list. Earnie Shavers is not alone in being a man stuck in one of boxing’s golden periods. He was just one of about 10 great heavyweights who shared the prime of his fighting life with Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes. Shavers also shared the last meaningful years of his fighting life with Mike Tyson. And, it is worth remembering that the fighters from the Lost Generation were all terrific fighters when they were motivated.
Shavers could have beaten Tony Tucker, Trevor Berbick, Tony Tubbs, Bonecrusher Smith, Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, John Tate, Greg Page and Tim Witherspoon. They are the Lost Generation and they could all really fight; they are the most underrated gang of heavyweights in history and that is understandable because they were all in dreadful fights – some of which were dubious. Any of the Lost Generation with the right motivation and at the right time, would have been a handful for Shavers. It would have taken a classic Shavers performance to win. He could have beaten them all, but he would not have walked through any of them if they had been in good shape; he would have knocked out every single one of them if they had come in with no desire, fat and miserable. And, the Lost Generation were experts at fighting without desire.
The drugs, the money, the side-show attractions, the endless broken promises ruined the Lost Generation. Shavers was on their fringes, not quite finished as a danger, when they started winning, losing and dying. They were a terrible waste, one of boxing’s great shames. So many of them are dead now and what brutally gruesome deaths they seemed to suffer; nobody needed a pipe and slippers, that is for sure.
Earnie Shavers never went big on a pipe, a comfy chair and a pair of worn slippers. The testimonials of all those that met him on both sides of the ropes and both sides of the street have been overwhelming. The man was loved, but it is the classic fights that shape the love.
Mine is the night in 1976 at the Aladdin in Las Vegas when he met the infamous and quite lunatic, Roy Williams. He is the man that wanted his money for not fighting on the night of the Rumble in the Jungle.
He is the man that fought Ali in two gym wars for the cash. He was due to fight that day at dawn, it rained, he never fought and he was not paid. Well, that’s most of the story. I don’t care if some of that tale is invented – I know that a lot of it is true. Anyway, Roy fights Earnie over 10 rounds one night. It is X-rated.
The ninth and 10th are truly unbelievable rounds, both men could have been saved by the referee or their corners. It is mayhem. There are counts when they are each stuck, limp and vulnerable on the ropes in a corner. Each time I watch it, I still scream for the referee to move in to save both of them. Instead, he gives a count. A count! They are spawled out on the ropes, totally gone. In the 10th, with seconds left and after one of the counts, Big Roy Williams just falls like a tumbled monument to the canvas. He goes down like a smoke stack at dawn; I swear, you can feel the ring shake. Shavers can barely walk, the fight is finally over. It is a fight for the ages with a finish from the dark ages. Less than a year later, Earnie goes the full 15 rounds with Ali.
Earnie Shavers remains, even without a crown of any type, boxing royalty. And that will never change. He will never be one of the lost heavyweights.