Earnie Shavers: Was he really the hardest punching heavyweight never to have won the world title?

Earnie Shavers turned pro in 1969. When he reached his peak it coincided with a heavyweight division that was enjoying a golden era. Muhammad Ali was at the very top of the pile throughout most of the 1970’s, closely followed by his successor – Larry Holmes, the frighteningly strong George Foreman and the man from whom “Big George” took the title, Joe Frazier. There were other great heavyweights doing there stuff during this time also.

Men like Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, Jimmy Young and George Chuvalo. It truly was a special era. And right in the middle of this fabulous period of heavyweight talent was Earnie Shavers who, at age 72, has some career to look back on.

One of Don King’s first fighters, Shavers made his pro debut in November 1969, with a second round KO over one Silas Johnson. Johnson became the first in a number of fighters to be knocked flat or stopped, this number would eventually total sixty seven! Shavers didn’t waste any time following up his first victory – he fought another two times in the same week in November. However, the third of these fights was his first loss, a points defeat over six rounds to a guy named Stan Johnson.

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Refusing to be discouraged, Shavers reeled off ten straight KO’s after this setback. Then came a loss that would reveal one of the weaknesses that this huge puncher would have throughout his career – a suspect chin. Shavers was stopped for the first time, against Ron Stander in round five. It would be three more years before Shavers lost again and, despite the loss to Stander, he was about to enjoy a very successful roll.

In 1973, Shavers, by now a rising contender, scored a KO win that in hindsight was far more impressive than initially thought. He knocked out the incredibly crafty Jimmy Young – the first man to do so, and one of only two men ever to stop Jimmy (Gerry Cooney being the other). This was a superb win and one indicative of just how dangerous Shavers was in the ring. He followed this up with arguably his finest ever victory. He crushed former champ Jimmy Ellis in the very first round. Shavers, not yet sporting his soon to be famous shaven-headed look, looked very shaky himself before dropping Ellis for the count; later claiming he was simply faking so as to draw Ellis in. It worked and Shavers became a serious threat to reigning champion George Foreman. What a pity these two would never meet. What a slugfest that fight would have been.

Unfortunately, Shavers lost some momentum after his great win over Ellis. He was stopped again – in one round by Jerry Quarry. Once again his weakness was exposed. Shavers may have been a lethal puncher but his chin left a lot to be desired. If an opponent could get past the early rounds this, as well as Shavers’ suspect stamina, gave them a chance of victory. Shaver’s high ranking dipped somewhat due to the humbling loss to Quarry.

He was far from finished though. After his loss to Quarry, he scored a first round win the following year over Roy Wallis and then, after a points defeat to Bob Stallings, he gave Jimmy Young a return bout. Young had evidently learned a fair amount since his loss to Shavers and this time he knew enough to fight to a draw, showing the cagey skills that would one day allow him to go the full fifteen with Ali.

Earnie’s career carried on in its up and down phase the following year when he fought the huge Ron Lyle. He had Lyle down in the second round but couldn’t keep him there. Lyle, showing some of the same grit that would be on display in his incredible brawl with George Foreman four months later, hung in there long enough for Earnie to tire, stopping him in the sixth round of an entertaining fight. At this point it was clear to all that while Shaver’s power was something to behold, he was far from unbeatable.

However, he was by now a genuine crowd-pleaser. His kill or be killed style thrilled the fans. And his most famous and memorable fights were still to take place!

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In 1977, after logging up five victories after the wild affair with Ron Lyle, Shavers was given his first shot at the title. He was to face the incomparable Muhammad Ali. By this stage in his career, however, Ali was showing some serious wear and tear. Looking back, it really was a crazy move for the ageing Ali to sign to defend against the murderous punching Shavers. The fight didn’t turn out quite like most thought it would beforehand, however. From somewhere, Shavers found the stamina to fight for fifteen long rounds and equally impressively, Ali was able to go to the well one more time to pull out a grueling points win. Ali really had to take some bombs though.

The Greatest was badly hurt on a number of occasions and only his legendary chin allowed him to survive. At the end it was mighty close, but the judges sided unanimously with The Greatest. Ali lovingly dubbed Shavers “The Acorn” in the build-up to the fight because of Earnie’s shaved dome and to this day the nickname has stuck. Ali would only manage one more win after his war with “The Acorn,” his return bout with Leon Spinks.

After the confidence boost of proving he could go the full fifteen rounds, as well as giving the best heavyweight in history such a hard fight, Shavers entered the year 1978 feeling good. He fought fellow contender Larry Holmes, in an eliminator for the WBC title, and was as determined as ever to be champion. But Holmes knew too much for him and won a wide points verdict. These two would meet again.

At this time, Ken Norton was felt by many to be one of the best big men in the world. He had lost a razor thin decision to Ali in 1976 and then did likewise to Holmes, two years later in a fight that Larry earned with his win over Shavers. This is very significant because one year after Holmes became champ with his close points win over Kenny, Shavers fought and destroyed Norton in a single round. How close to the title he had been. If Norton had been given the decision over Holmes, Shavers would now be champion of the world! There certainly is an amount of luck needed in becoming king. Still, this superb win earned Shavers a second crack at Holmes. And this time he did a bit better.

He cracked Holmes with a huge right in the seventh and Holmes went down in a manner that would have signaled certain defeat for many a fighter. Larry wasn’t simply put on the canvas, it looked as though he would almost be sent right through it. How he got up and survived, no-one- least of all Shavers, will ever know. Earnie’s chance at winning had passed and Holmes regained the initiative, stopping him on cuts in round eleven. Shavers’ days as a top contender were over.

He carried on until 1987, wining a few and losing a few – to men like Randall “Tex” Cobb, a loss, Joe Bugner, a win, and James “Quick” Tilli, a loss. He retired in the summer of ’87 after a win over Larry Simms, only to make a shocking return to the ring in 1995! Aged fifty, Shavers managed a win over a guy named Brian Morgan but was then stopped in two rounds by somebody called Brian Yates.

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Shavers’ final pro record reads – 72 wins 13 defeats 1 draw with 67 KO’s.

He may have never won a world title, but in the opinion of many fight fans he is the undisputed holder of the title “Hardest heavyweight puncher of all-time!”