This is the fourth installment in Carlos Acevedo’s Shoot The Moon series covering the career of Larry Holmes.
The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison
—J. J. Evans
September 28, 1979
“Holy Christ, I was down and struggling to get upright. My legs felt like Jell-O. Above the roar of the crowd, a voice in my head was screaming, ‘Get up. Get the fuck up! He’s taking your championship. Your championship.’”
To be on the receiving end of an overhand right from “The Black Destroyer” invariably meant being transported, if only momentarily, to another dimension. “I was in the land of make-believe,” former heavyweight contender James Tillis once recalled about the evening Earnie Shavers sent him plummeting onto his face in a Las Vegas ring. “I heard saxophones, trombones. I saw little blue rats, and they were all smoking cigars and drinking whiskey.”
One of the most fearsome KO punchers in history, Earnie Shavers rose from abject poverty to come within an instant of winning the heavyweight championship of the world—twice. In 1977, Shavers, an off-the-board longshot who had once been stopped by Ron Stander, staggered Muhammad Ali en route to dropping a unanimous decision in Madison Square Garden. Although Shavers had Ali visibly hurt after landing one of his pulverizing rights in the second round (Ali, post-fight: “Earnie hit me so hard, he shook my kinfolk back in Africa!”), he was bamboozled by the mind games Ali played while dazed and failed to move in for the kill. Two years later, Shavers would have Larry Holmes in desperate straits as well.
Except for George Foreman and, possibly, Oscar Bonavena, Shavers warred with every notable big man of the 1970s Golden Age of heavyweights. When Shavers turned pro, in 1969, he was twenty-five years old and had little amateur experience. The AAU tournament he managed to win was the result of a freakish gift from nature, like the strange powers afflicting the protagonists of Carrie, The Fury, and Scanners: the ability to disconnect the senses with a single blow.
As a child in Alabama, Shavers picked cotton to help his sharecropper father, and when the KKK eventually drove the Shavers family north to Ohio, Earnie became a standout athlete in high school. Then it was hard years at B&O Railroad, Polson Rubber Co., Republican Steel, and General Motors before he embarked on an unlikely career as a prizefighter. From backwater to backwater, Shavers knocked out nearly every palooka he faced in building up an improbable KO record. Over the years, naturally, Shavers would also cross paths with one bunco artist after another: Don King, Don Elbaum, Blackie Gennaro, and zany ex-Cy-Young-Award-winner Dean Chance. High-profile losses—including an embarrassing first-round TKO defeat at the hands of Jerry Quarry in Madison Square Garden—relegated Shavers to fringe-contender status, but his breathtaking shootout against Ron Lyle in 1975 brought him notoriety in defeat.
After losing to Ali, Shavers dropped a spiritless decision on March 25, 1978, to a rising Larry Holmes in a WBC title eliminator. Shavers had plenty of excuses for that one. “I was having managerial problems when I fought Holmes before, and I wasn’t in shape,” Shavers wrote in his autobiography Welcome to the Big Time. “For five months my manager had me do nothing but meet people and shake hands. Then he tried to get me in shape in four and a half weeks, training in a gym that had no heat and I could never work up a good sweat. I tried too hard to kayo Holmes before I ran out of gas. I was too tense. Holmes didn’t fight Earnie Shavers that night. He fought somebody else in my body.”
Although Shavers was a wrecking-ball puncher, his overall skill set was primitive. Like Lyle, another late starter who crashed the heavyweight rankings in the 1970s, Shavers also suffered from a lack of fluidity. A plodding style, suspect stamina, and a haywire chin kept Shavers from exploiting his otherworldly power when it counted most. Shavers also had difficulty relaxing in the ring—a flaw that burned up precious energy in a man with limited endurance.
But his 1979 demolition job of Ken Norton—all 118 gory seconds of it—catapulted Shavers back into the heavyweight spotlight, and he quickly signed a contract to face Larry Holmes in September at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. “This is my best shot and maybe my last one,” Shavers told AP before the fight. “I’ll be in good shape, and I’ll be ready.” Even his sparring partners had to suffer for his determination. “I had ‘Holmes’ emblazoned on their headgear,” Shavers wrote, “and the psychological spin it provided me made their jobs a little harder.”
Finally, things were looking up for Larry Holmes. He was back on the national airwaves after having been banished to fledgling HBO for a grueling title defense against Mike Weaver a few months earlier. And while Holmes struggled bitterly against Weaver before finally scoring a late TKO, he had electrified the audience in a rare heavyweight barnburner. His paycheck for the Shavers fight—$2.5 million—would make him, instantly, the Daddy Warbucks of boxing and was a windfall compared to the pittance he had collected against Weaver. In a strange but pleasant milestone, Shavers would be the first title defense for Holmes that oddsmakers had not tabbed an out-fight. (True, Holmes had whitewashed Shavers a few years earlier, but no one could deny the danger Shavers presented on a moment-by-moment basis between the ropes.)
Most important of all: Muhammad Ali, champion, showman, faux revolutionary, idol to millions upon millions worldwide, had finally hung up his gloves. A few months earlier, Ali had made his first public appearance as a retiree, a pair of comic exhibitions in Jersey City against Governor Brendan Byrne and Mayor Thomas F. X. Smith. Thousands turned out to cheer “The Greatest” whenever he emerged from his suite at the Meadowlands Hilton. “Look at the parade I get,” he told Dave Anderson of The New York Times. “This is every day, everywhere I go.”
By contrast, Holmes was often mistaken for Shavers and found himself approached for autographs on the deflating basis of mistaken identity. Ultimately, Ali had ceded center stage to a sulky ex-dark horse heavyweight hard-pressed to acclimatize to top billing. “I used to fight for a hundred dollars and take home fifty,” Holmes said at the time. “I slept in the raggediest hotel rooms in the world. I had to wait on line. I had a long wait, but that’s all OK now. My turn has come. I got a couple of million dollars in the bank. Not bad for a seventh-grade dropout.” For now, however, the seemingly miles-long shadow Ali had cast over boxing for nearly fifteen years was gone. As if to underscore the sudden shift in the heavyweight landscape, Ali hype man Bundini Brown attended the Holmes–Shavers press conference, barking and blustering on behalf of “The Easton Assassin.”
Promoter Don King billed his ABC extravaganza—which also featured Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Wilfredo Gomez in separate bouts—“The Greatest Boxing Show on Earth,” a nod to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, back then a television showcase featuring “animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, Rudi Lenz with his chimps, and trampoline artist Canistrelli.”
The crowd at the sold-out Sports Pavilion waited in buzzing anticipation. Soon Shavers entered the ring in a plain white terrycloth robe, as if to symbolize the elemental nature of his style. A few minutes later, Holmes ducked through the ropes, resplendent in red and white, hardly a fashionista but still color-coordinated with his over-the-calf tube socks and Ponys.
After a staredown at center ring, the two heavyweights returned to their corners and waited for the opening bell. In far better shape than he had been for Weaver a few months earlier, Holmes was determined to improve on his previous showing, which was, after all, a life-and-death struggle against a pick-up fighter who had often entered the ring due to a shortage of groceries.
For six rounds, Holmes played lion tamer in the ring, working behind his jab, opening up with the occasional combination, and moving to his right to avoid seeing the black lights, something a booming cross from Shavers all but guaranteed. As Shavers rumbled forward in single-gear, his destructive right thrown intermittently and inaccurately, Holmes shot out his jab with damaging accuracy. How damaging? Within a few rounds, Shavers was having trouble seeing from his right eye, and although he continued pressing, his attack was clumsy and inaccurate. It turned out that Shavers had a reason for his wildness. “In the third round, one of those jabs landed with the thumb of his glove in my eye, and my vision went blurry,” Shavers recalled in his autobiography. “I saw three Larrys and ended up swinging at the wrong one.”
A round later, Shavers was cut and bleeding from his right eye, and not long after that, he suffered a nick alongside his left eye. As Holmes piled up points, it looked like this fight would be a mere mimeograph copy of what had happened in 1978, when Shavers could barely touch his ex-sparring partner.
In round seven Shavers, possibly spurred on by the gravity of his wounds, accelerated his ragged attack. Although Holmes remained out of range for most of the incoming, Shavers was getting closer and closer with every looping punch. A few of his shuddering blows connected only partially, but the potential destruction in each shot was enough to drive Holmes back and raise the collective blood pressure of thousands in the audience.
Finally, zero hour for Holmes arrived, almost instantaneously. With about thirty seconds left in the round, Shavers saw an opening when Holmes momentarily dropped his guard. All those years toiling in the hinterlands, all those years of roadwork and chopping wood, all those charlatans who had given him the runaround, all those farfetched dreams of riches—everything Shavers had gone through seemed to fuse into a right cross so accurate and so concussive that it could never be reproduced in its perfection. It was a once-in-a-lifetime punch.
Holmes went down in a heap, as if shot by a boltgun.
The crowd at the Sports Pavilion erupted in shock. Because of his go-for-broke style and raw power, Shavers had always been a crowd favorite, but few believed he would topple Holmes, a talented champion still years away from his peak. What they saw when they saw Holmes collapse was an improbability made violently real—at least for the moment—by sheer will. It seemed inconceivable that any man, even a world-class fighter, could rise from such a superjolt.
In 1985, Holmes recalled his near-disaster at the fists of Shavers for World Boxing. “I kept banging him and banging him, then I tried to throw an uppercut, and when I dropped my left hand, he hit me with an overhand right,” Holmes said. “When he hit me, I thought somebody was taking my picture. I saw a big flash. Other times I was knocked down in my career, I never saw that. I say he could’ve knocked me out if he didn’t hit me that hard. But he hit me so hard that he automatically woke me up. He hit me so damn hard, that I thought lightning struck. Real, real hard.”
For a moment, Holmes lay on his side like a drunk who had passed out on a government-issued cot. From a neutral corner, Shavers, his white trunks spattered with blood, like a drop cloth in a freshly-painted apartment, watched as Holmes staggered upright. “I was the heavyweight champion of the world,” he remembered. “All my troubles were finally over. It was the greatest feeling I’d ever had. And it lasted for five whole seconds.”
Referee Davey Pearl was barely halfway through the ten-count when Holmes miraculously staggered to his feet. A dizzy Holmes, his head likely pealing with the sounds of a hundred imaginary Evel Knievel catastrophes, bounced on his toes to clear his head. Then, when the fight resumed, it was survival only—by retreating, by clinching, occasionally by punching—for the rest of the round. When the bell rang, Holmes wobbled back to his corner, where his trainer, Richie Giachetti, poured water over him and broke an ammonia capsule under his nose. Holmes came out for the eighth moving from side to side and flicking out his jab. Shavers, the right side of his bruised face smeared with Vaseline, had burned himself out in the previous round. Now he was just a bleeding target. Over the next few rounds, Holmes battered him at will, and even with the crowd shouting “Earnie, Earnie!” Shavers could do no more than grin defiantly and hurl the occasional looping shot. More than once, Shavers nearly capsized throwing a punch, and just as often he leaned against the ropes, too weary to even move his leaden feet. By the end of the tenth round, there was nothing left but courage and, perhaps, beneath the welts and dripping plasma, disbelief at such a sudden reversal of fortune.
With Holmes exhorting him to stop the fight, Pearl finally stepped in and called a halt to what had become nothing more than carnage. Instead of leaving the ring with the WBC heavyweight title, Shavers was whisked to a hospital, where he received twenty-seven stitches for the cut above his right eye. Two weeks later, he underwent surgery at John Hopkins to repair a detached retina. At thirty-five years old, his championship fantasies were over.
After being announced the winner, Larry Holmes edged toward the ropes and shouted down at press row: “No more Ali, please. I’m the only champion now.”
Yet here you are again. McFadden & Whitehead, still riding Billboard, led you down the aisle and to the ring. Friday night, prime time. Usually reserved for Fantasy Island and Ricardo Montalban, Dallas and the feuding Ewings, The Incredible Hulk (with sad-eyed Bill Bixby hitchhiking in the rain) and those naughty Dukes of Hazzard burning rubber in a General Lee (Daisy D. the hot-shorts dimepiece of every teenage reverie). Back at Caesars Palace, Sin City, the Great American Hyperrealist Bonbon in a desert (so said Baudrillard, at least) and set against the familiar kitsch-bomb scenery: a pastel heaven (or hell) of popped collars, powdery blazers—in canary yellow or baby blue—colossal lapels wider than Stetson brims, glinting Aviators obscuring the bloodshot eyes of Seven Stud hellraisers, overstuffed spandex dotted with sequins like fugazi diamonds, spray-tan man & wife duos gleaming under the lights, everything louder than technicolor or a Neo-Geo palette. Marvin Gaye crooning The Star-Spangled Banner and the “Aging Legends” Rolodex raided for the evening: Cary Grant, Joe DiMaggio, Diana Ross milling with the jet set in a sea of outlandish medallions; nasal Howard Cosell on the mic for ABC . . . only months after you were rocking MSG like The Stones or Led Zep, now brand new millions for all your future dreams, the ones that you will reach for, step by bitter step.