“Only God Hits Harder”: A Life of Earnie Shavers

By Brian D'Ambrosio on September 28, 2013
“Only God Hits Harder”: A Life of Earnie Shavers
“A lot of the champs are now shot. A lot of the champs, they are all gone upstairs.”

“Joe Frazier wouldn’t fight me. George Foreman and Frazier both told me so, they said, ‘Hey, you hit too damn hard…’”

Earnie Shavers has no doubt who is the hardest-hitting heavyweight of all time.

“Only God hits harder than me,” chuckles Shavers. “Only God. That’s it.”

Muhammad Ali concurred. Larry Holmes once shared similar opinion. Randall “Tex” Cobb, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton and a mass of others at one time or another certified Shavers as one of the hardest punchers ever.

“Not one of the hardest—the number one,” says Shavers. “I think I’m ahead of them all.”

The list of men who can affirm or deny the power of Shavers’ fists is shorter than Shavers would like.

“Joe Frazier wouldn’t fight me. George Foreman and Frazier both told me so, they said, ‘Hey, you hit too damn hard.’ George turned me down. Joe Frazier told me point blank, ‘No way, Earnie.’”

No matter where he ranks—admittedly, Shavers’ KO record included a host of nobodies—it’s clear that Earnie Shavers was one of the solidest punchers in boxing history, and twice came close to winning the heavyweight crown. In 1977, he dazed Muhammad Ali, but lost a decision over 15 rounds. Then, two years later, he decked Larry Holmes. But Holmes staggered to his feet and KO’d Shavers in the eleventh round.

Born August 31, 1945, Earnie Dee Shavers grew up as dangerous as he hit.

At five years old, Earnie and his sharecropping kin fled the town of Garland, Alabama, one hundred miles northeast of Mobile, to escape the hooded violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Earnie doesn’t remember all of the details, but the deadly serious reputation of the Klan forced his family to flee.

“At five, we moved to Ohio. Momma said that the day we left the Klan searched the house for my father. It had something to do with his not paying on a car of a Klansman. They would have killed him. Monday morning, he pulled a gun, Monday night he was gone. And the next day, we all were on the train. Six months later, he made it North and got a job.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. At five years old, I worked hard. Momma raised us to love everybody; we were not raised to hate anyone. I talk the same way when I raise my kids—with love.”

At age 22, Shavers began boxing, even remembering the very day he first walked into a boxing gym. It was January 3, 1967, and one of the trainers, impressed by Earnie’s height and mass, put gloves on his young fists. “‘This guy is going to hurt someone.’ That’s what he said. I got my experience as pro. First week, I had three fights and they came at the right time, because my family and I couldn’t afford for me to mess up. I make more money now with the name Earnie Shavers.” 

Two weeks later, on January 17, 1967, he won his first fight with a first-round knockout of Jim Daniels. That bout took place in Youngstown, Ohio, not far from Warren, Ohio, where Earnie spent his formative years working the land and building muscles.

“I grew up on a farm and that’s what made me strong. Chopping trees increases your hand and back muscles, chopping wood for the winter, thousands of trees, tossing bales of wheat. Every young man should spend a few years on a farm.”

Known as the “Black Destroyer” and later “The Acorn,” Shavers compiled a record built on fury, consecutive stretches of knockout victories, most of which happened inside the first round.

He rose up the heavyweight division’s hierarchy with help from a flamboyant Cleveland-based ex-convict named Don King. “He supported me my whole life. Today, he is so busy I stay clear of him. He’s the best.” 

Shaver’s early wins included a three-round win over Jimmy Young in 1973, and, two fights later, a crossroads fight with one-time WBA heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis, who he dismantled in a single round. Ellis, a small heavyweight who got a share of the title while Ali was in enforced exile, started out fast, but a right uppercut soon dropped him flat.

“People ask me about the biggest fight of my career. Ali? No. Norton? No. It was Jimmy Ellis. If I didn’t beat Ellis, I would’ve never got to Norton. It was the biggest fight of my career. It got me into the big time. I had to take him out.”

Earnie Shavers was a puncher, but he couldn’t always withstand a punch. He was punched out by Ron Lyle, Jerry Quarry (in the first round), and Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander, a Nebraska beer drinker who was more of a mauler than a puncher. He was outpointed by two virtually unknowns, Bob Stallings and Stan Johnson, and he had a 10-round draw with Jimmy Young not long after he punched Young out in an earlier bout.

“Ron Lyle was a tough guy, a good puncher. I thank God for allowing me to get into the fight game. I was successful because Archie Moore gave me advice. It’s because Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson, they all gave me all the same advice. Keep your name clean, don’t smoke, and don’t drink.”

Shavers vs. Ali

When Shavers prepared for Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden, on September 29, 1977, he felt that, as a dangerous puncher, he always had a winning chance, especially if his opponent had not trained properly.

At 35-years-old and a little heavy at 225 pounds, Ali was still the prohibitive favorite despite the 33-year-old Shavers’ record of 52 knockouts in 54 victories.

Shavers appeared slower than Ali, and, at two inches shorter, an easy target for Ali’s swift jabs. Shavers, who tended to drop his hands, had been knocked out three times and was nearly kayoed in at least three other fights before pulling out knockout victories with his deadly right hand.

In the second round, Shavers caught Ali with an overhand right. The two alternated winning rounds.

Aware of Shavers’ reputation for running out of gas in the late rounds, Ali’s strategy in the final three was a matter of survival. Shavers ratcheted up the aggression in the thirteenth, flurrying Ali with punches.

“It took a long time for me to learn to relax. It took a long time for me to learn that you can’t punch yourself out. There were some good rounds for me. At first I thought I won it. But now I’m glad I didn’t win the title. A lot of the champs are now shot. A lot of the champs, they are messed up. They are all gone upstairs.”

In the 14th, Shavers assaulted Ali, stunning him with dynamite combinations of punches. Before the 15th, Ali’s legs appeared unsteady.

In a classic final round, Ali finished strongly against his predator, even staggering Shavers in the final seconds. Despite Ali’s unanimous decision victory, a number of observers felt Shavers deserved the nod. Suggestions that Ali should retire followed.

“I think he should have, too. He took too many punches and he’s paying for it now. Only Ali and Holmes could stand up to so many punches. But if you take a lot of punches, in the end, you pay. I came out okay.”

Shavers then fought in a title qualifier against Larry Holmes on March 25, 1978, dropping a 12-round unanimous decision. He knocked out former champion Ken Norton in the first round, on March 23, 1979, perhaps the best win of his career. It was a left hook to the temple that disoriented Norton and a right uppercut that sealed his fate. (This interview was conducted two weeks before Norton died.)

“Ken didn’t like punches. I heard that Ken was petrified of me. I told Ken, ‘I’m going to destroy you,’ six weeks prior to the fight. I knew from day one, because he could not look me in the eye. See, I knew he didn’t like punchers. When a fighter can’t look you in the eye, it’s bad, and he couldn’t look me in the eye. Holmes and Ali looked back, they looked straight back. With Ali and Holmes, it was going to be a long time. But Norton, he looked at the floor.”

Shavers and Holmes rematched at Caesars Palace on September 28, 1979. Going in, Holmes understood that messing around with Shavers once more was a dicey proposition under the best of circumstances. Shavers, shedding blood from a cut above his right eye, surprised a fresher, more confident-looking Holmes in round seven. Half-blindly, Shavers clocked his foe with a barrage of heavy, powerhouse rights, and then put him down with a vicious right cross. Demonstrating a courage some said he didn’t possess, Holmes rebounded from the fight’s first knockdown, virtually closing Shavers’ left eye with uppercuts. With both of his eyes all but shut, Shavers gutted out an exceptionally wicked ninth.

Holmes brawled his way through Shavers, stopping him in the 11th. Afterwards, Holmes said that Shavers’ punches were incomparably mean. Nothing personal, says Shavers.

“You know, I always got along with all of the guys, Holmes, Norton, Ali. I never mention any fighter in a bad way.”

The second Holmes bout was the last significant match for Shavers, who continued to fight professionally for several years, retiring in 1995. By the time he entered the ropes for his final bout, he had little on his mind except squirreling away enough for his future. “I was glad when the check cleared—that’s all I know.”

To this day, he still regards Roy “Tiger” Williams as his toughest opponent.

“Williams was from Philadelphia, and our fight, man, it was life and death for both of us. They called and asked me to fight him twice, and I said ‘keep it.’ I fought him in Las Vegas. It was a 10-round war, back and forth. In the last nine minutes, I was in trouble. I knew he was a tough guy, an ex-sparring partner. To this day, I don’t know how I won this fight—I had to feed my family.”

After retirement, Shavers became a born-again Christian and began speaking at rallies all over the world. Following his ordainment, he ministered in the American Southwest and then England. 

“I thank the Lord a million times that I’m changed and in perfect health. I’m in great shape. Since I was 22, I’ve been taking care of myself. I’m even going to be a spokesperson for one of the best products I’ve ever used. All I can say is that it’s just for men. The next 90 days, there will be a lot of change in my life. And I’ve never felt this good since I was 22.”

Sylvester Stallone once asked Shavers if he would spar with him as part of the actor’s preparation for Rocky III. Stallone even flirted with the idea of casting Shavers or a fellow heavyweight in the role of James “Clubber” Lang.

Shavers taught Stallone the difference between the authentic and the scripted. In their first meeting, Shavers refused to lay into Stallone with anything besides a reluctant jab. But Stallone persisted, shouting at Shavers “to open up.” Shavers opened up and delivered a punch to Stallone’s stomach, which sent him off to the bathroom vomiting.

“Stallone was a very nice guy. He kept saying, “‘You can’t hold back, make it look realistic. Open up. Open up, I want realistic.’ After, he flew me home, first class. His brothers were really good to me too.”

In recent years, Shavers involved himself with children’s charity in England and lectured there to kids on the value of making right decisions.

“England, they love me there. They love their punchers. They take of care me. Anything I need, I call England, I get it the same day. I’m very lucky.”

Shavers finished with a record of 74 wins, 14 losses and one draw.

“There were some great years,” says Shavers. “There were the top three, Ali, Holmes, and Norton. My best rounds were Ali in the second and 13th, and Holmes in the seventh. He was down and hurt bad. I had a great career, good people working with me.”

The sinister Fu Manchu moustache is long gone, though the billiard ball bald pate remains. Long gone, too, is that vaunted punch and the desire to ever again see, feel, or employ its impact.

“I’m not a fight fan, no sir. At age 12, I knew I was going to be an athlete. And I thank God a million times for the people he put in my life. I had good advice and I followed it.”

He is, however, a big believer of living as good and grateful of a life as he can. He feels fortunate enough to maintain a dignity and sense of choice that many other fighters do not have. 

“Things are truly happening to me right now. I have big figure contracts now. Four or five of my ex-wives, all of them want to come back now. My first paycheck in boxing was two-hundred and thirty dollars. All the money I make today is from the fight game. The fight game has been very good for my family and me.”

From both a physical and financial vantage point, he says he is faring better than average.

“A lot of good fighters are not so good businessmen. Holmes, Foreman, Shavers, we are all in good shape. I know how to take care of myself. I’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years, though I don’t train as much. I had a complete physical a month ago.”

Perhaps it’s only fitting that, at age 68, one of boxing’s greatest warriors is comfortable. He entered the sport hoping to just make ends meet; all these years later, he enjoys the benefit of all the bloodshed.

“When I started boxing, I could not afford to get out of line or make mistakes. I couldn’t afford to.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Earnie Shavers vs Williams full fight http://bigpunchers.blogspot.com/

Earnie Shavers v Ken Norton (Full fight).mpg

Earnie Shavers Battle Royale with Larry Holmes

Randall 'Tex' Cobb vs Earnie Shavers

Muhammad Ali vs Earnie Shavers

Muhammad Ali vs Earnie Shavers

Jerry Quarry vs. Earnie Shavers

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  1. jesse kaellis 04:37pm, 08/25/2014

    I meet Ken Norton and Ernie Shavers
    I was resting in the hotel room when my girlfriend and her daughter came in.  My girlfriend looks at me, “Do you know who Ernie Shavers is?”  Well yes I do know who Ernie Shavers is.  She tells me that he is signing autographs in a memorabilia shop in the Miracle Mile mall of the Planet Hollywood casino, hotel and retail complex.  “Do you think he’s still there?”  “Yes, do you want to see him?”
    And I did want to see him.  We’re staying at Hooters which is behind the Trop; just off strip.  We go down and get in the car and we go via Harmon and find a parkade in the back of the Planet complex.  We find a spot and enter through the back, into the Miracle Mile part, the shops.
    I’m feeling excited but I’m walking with a cane, walking with difficulty.  I’m still recuperating from spinal surgery that I had last spring.  Here it is late August.
    We come up on the shop pretty quickly and there is Shavers sitting at a folding table sideways to the front entrance.  He’s got a cell phone pressed against his ear.  He glances at me and he is aware that I’m there to bother him.  I’m feeling bashful but I don’t care, I’m there to get a handshake and that’s it.  He talks briefly and he hangs up.  I walk over, “Sir, can I shake your hand?”  He doesn’t look too friendly but he reaches out with his large right hand.
    I’m telling him about all the other boxing notables that I shook hands with but he is underwhelmed and I falter and then I just leave him alone.  I wasn’t offended really.  He’s there to make a buck and I wasn’t buying anything.  Maybe he had personal problems. 
    The owner of the store shows me a picture of Tyson.  He says, “Mike’s doing well now.  He’s married and happy, he’s settled down.”  I tell him that’s nice, I tell him that I saw Mike around town, at the gyms and what not when I lived in Vegas. 
    The owner is telling me that Ken Norton would be arriving soon and as he’s telling me that a big guy, really big, walks in from the back and its Norton!  He’s pushing a walker and I feel better because I got to use a walker sometimes.  Norton looked good, muscular and fit save for he doesn’t walk well.  He looks like he lifts weights.
    He’s smiling and he looks relaxed.  I tell him that I don’t want an autograph or anything; I just want to shake his hand.  He reaches out and my hand disappears.  I tell him how good he looks.  He puts his hand out, “Oh, stop.”  I tell him he beat Ali three times.  And I really believe that.  Norton had Ali’s number like no other fighter.  He points to the picture of him chasing Ali on a football field and they both got gloves on.  He points, “Street shoes…”  He’s telling me,” It’s the 70’s.”  The shoes have those built up heels.  Norton has a speech impediment because of his car accident.  He’s hard to understand.  I make a concerted effort and he is patient and not self conscious.  He’s disabled but he is Ken Norton first.  Some small talk; he’s telling me that it’s the little guys that carry boxing now; 130 to 147, and he’s right of course.  I figure it’s getting to be time to leave.  I don’t want to impose on this guy.  I thank him profusely and thank Shavers and we turn and walk into the atrium.  I’m telling Kelli, my girlfriend, “I can’t believe it! Ken Norton!”  He was so nice to me.
    We get about 20 feet out of the store and I started crying.  I don’t know why.  I can’t say why.  My life came into focus; the passage of time.  It got real.  But I pulled myself together and we spent the rest of the day out at Lake Mead.

  2. Jethro's Flute 05:30am, 08/06/2014

    Does anyone get the British boxing magazine ‘Boxing Monthly’?

    If so, they can treat themselves to reading an interview with Earnie Shavers who has clearly been believing his own myths.

    He reckons he would have had no trouble with Mike Tyson, if Tyson was around in the 70’s, Lennox Lewis would have been eaten up in that decade and that George Foreman avoided him.

    Tyson would have wrecked him in the first round, given that Shavers doesn’t have a huge height advantage, unlike Razor Ruddock did and that thunderous one-punch power has never been the way to beat Mike Tyson.

    George Foreman would also have beaten him in the first round and Lennox Lewis is being seriously underrated by Shavers.

    Lewis would certainly have made mincemeat of an ageing and almost washed-up Muhammad Ali. If Ali had been 2 years younger when facing Shavers, he’d have scored a late stoppage.

  3. Your Name 12:09am, 07/29/2014

    Shavers is a true sportsman and gentleman. A few years ago in the UK Earnie came along to a charity event and jumped in the ring for an exhibition bout. Even at 60 years old he took his opponent, half his age, clean out with a right cross. Not intentionally, but it just shows the natural power. Earnie couldnt do enough that day to help raise money for a worthy charity.
    Earnie is doing great in Las Vegas with his own memoribilia shop - all the very best to him.

  4. Daniela 08:42am, 11/26/2013

    Hi ! My name is Daniela Anzola, I am a colombian journalist who works at SoHo magazine, one of the most important publications in Latin America. I would love to speak with Earnie Shavers, since I am currently writing an article on Muhammad Ali. The idea is to publish a testimonial from someone who has been in a fight with him, “how does it feel to fight muhammad? how does it feel to receive a punch from Ali?.
    I would really appreciate your help in any of this. It does not have to be an interview, Shavers can send us a small paragraph with details of his experience with Muhammad. Do you know how to contact him?

    Thanks you!
    Daniela Anzola
    phone: 57 1+6468400 ext 3328
    cellphone: 57+320-4509396

  5. Jethro's Flute 02:02am, 10/06/2013

    Mike Silver is right. Shavers was a huge one-punch hitter but a rubbish finisher with a dodgy chin and dodgy stamina.

    It is telling that the biggest praise for his punching power comes from men who beat him.

    Foreman would have gubbed him in the first round and remember that Ron Lyle’s first fight after beating Earnie Shavers was against George.

  6. Mike Silver 08:28pm, 10/02/2013

    Enough already with the myth that Earnie Shavers was an all time great puncher. How do you define great puncher? Yes, he could drop a horse with his punch but so what. He wasn’t fighting horses. A great puncher is also a great finisher, which Earnie proved he was not by failing to take out Holmes when he had him hurt. And he failed to drop Ali, despite landing dozens of flush right hands. Didn’t Cooper and Frazier drop Ali with one shot? Take a close look at Earnie’s record—about 50 of his 68 KOs were over 2nd and 3rd rate losers. Earnie had a definite stamina problem and was flattened (after teeing off on their chins but still unable to stop them) by Ron Stander, Bernardo Mercado, Ron Lyle and Jerry Quarry. Geez! I saw the guy in 1974 lose a decision to an absolute mediocrity named Bob Stallings who had a 20-25 record going into the fight. Take out the Holmes knockdown from his record, the close fight with a bloated and out of shape Ali, and the one round stoppage of Ellis (who had Shavers on the verge of going down when he was tagged by a desperation punch) and what do you have?—A second rate fighter with no stamina and a tremendous punch. Yes, Shavers could punch like hell but a great puncher takes out the tough ones.

  7. Epifanio Almeda 12:58pm, 09/28/2013

    This article is great. I didn’t know Earnie Shavers to be a good man. When he fights the the favorites Ali and Holmes were announced, I wished Earnie would lose. His clean living as a boxer, no smoking, no drinking, is a good example for young boxers to follow. His happy disposition and friendliness outside of the ring are traits everyone, not just boxers, need to emulate.

  8. Sharon Cobb 11:09am, 09/28/2013

    Shavers is one of the nicest boxers I’ve ever met.  He, Dokes and Tex were doing a rap record, and we were in the studio for 24 hours, and everyone was grouchy except Shavers.  He was smiling and praying and lifting everyone up.  Tex said to me to remember that moment, because there was a gentle giant who could knock this building down.  I always did remember that.             

    If you get a chance and go for the more brutal, primal fights, watch the one with my ex and Shavers.  Tex retired Shavers with a broken jaw in the 8th.  Tex said Shavers hit him so hard it made his yet to be born grandchildren hurt.  True.  Shavers is a great man, a friend, and the hardest hitter….EVER.

  9. Eric 07:18am, 09/28/2013

    Always admired how Shavers carried himself in and out of the ring. Shavers had a “puncher’s chance” against anyone, even King Kong, but I don’t see him beating Frazier or Foreman in their primes. Sure, Earnie was capable of knocking out Smokin’ Joe, but Joe was also capable of knocking out Earnie, who didn’t have the best set of whiskers out there. Speaking of Ron Stander, my brother once had a chance to talk to Stander, and asked him about the power of Shavers and Frazier. According to my brother, Stander stated Shavers hit a good deal harder than Smokin’ Joe. But curiously while Shavers might have hit harder, he was knocked out by two fighters Joe manhandled and stopped in a handful of rounds. As hard as Shavers hit, it seems sometimes he couldn’t finish the job, examples are the Lyle fight, the Bernardo Mercado fight, and the championship bout against Holmes. Good to hear that Shavers is doing well, a class act.