Major league hitters and a wild night in Salt Lake with Mister Devastation
22.11.05 - BY MIKE CASEY: Where does Earnie Shavers stand among the hardest hitting heavyweights in history? Statistically, he runs pretty close, with an eye-popping 67 knockouts in his 73 career wins.
Article posted on 22.12.2005
But as we all know, one of the eternal and frustrating charms of boxing is that we can never conclusively prove what we believe to be so when tackling the eternally thorny exercise of comparing the fighters of past and present.
Now, if you will, consider the following ranking:
01. Joe Louis
02. Sam Langford
03. Jack Dempsey
04. Bob Fitzsimmons
05. George Foreman
06. Earnie Shavers
07. Rocky Marciano
08. Sonny Liston
09. Mike Tyson
10. Lennox Lewis
Before anyone starts chucking rocks at the old scribe here, I should hasten to explain that this little list is no property of mine and does not represent a one-to-ten of the greatest heavyweight boxers in history.
Around two years ago, the writers of The Ring magazine compiled an exhaustive list of the greatest pound-for-pound punchers of all weight divisions. All I have done is to pick out the heavyweights on that list in their order of merit.
Firstly, I have no argument with the inclusion of any of the men here, and I wouldn’t tell the surviving members even if I did. Secondly, we can argue long into the night about the running order. After thirty years as a boxing writer, historian and incurable statistician, I continue to have a love/hate relationship with just about every top ten list I compile. I fiddle with it, re-shuffle it, hum and hah over it and occasionally junk the whole darn thing and start over.
Where this list is concerned, I simply want to throw one mischievous question out into the East Side alley and see how the local cats chew it over: Should Earnie Shavers be rated higher or lower than sixth?
Big banging Earnie was a thrilling conundrum throughout his career, a marauding fringe player who kept the elite on their toes by throwing in the occasional stick of dynamite whenever the heavyweight waters became mild and stagnant. He was never going to win the richest prize in sport, because he was too erratic and too fragile at the very top level. That goes with the territory for so many big hitters.
But Shavers was undoubtedly one of the most dangerous heavyweights to ever grace the stage. He was the long residing scaremonger of the division, frightening but flawed, whom the top men knew they could beat but didn’t actually want to fight. Like a big shark casting its shadow, you simply never knew what Earnie was going to do next.
We all love a major league hitter, but we are especially fond of vulnerable punchers who provide no hint of the outcome when they step into the ring.
Take another look at our list and you will see why Shavers remains a fascinating outsider. In terms of overall ability, he never got close to those men with whom he keeps company here. Nor could he compete with them in durability and punch resistance.
What he did possess was that one prized asset that never fails to thrill boxing fans and make them gasp in awe and admiration when it hits the mark: the knockout wallop. It didn’t matter that Shavers was a quiet fellow by nature. His ability to stop opponents in their tracks with a blast from either fist gave him all the charisma he needed.
The fascination of punching power in boxing is that logic so infrequently plays a part in the multi-faceted equation. Teach a big fellow to hit a golf ball correctly and he will nearly always hit it out of sight, well beyond the distance achieved by a man of smaller stature. In boxing, as we know, it doesn’t always follow that a muscled giant will hit the hardest, or indeed that he will be able to hit at all. Look at the pictures of the great hitters throughout history, especially from the lower weight divisions, and so many of them could pass for bank clerks or librarians when you see them in their street clothes. Most have that certain choirboy look and the classic sloping shoulders from which they derive their leverage.
Properly taught technique and the right attitude will go a long way to adding power to a fighter’s arsenal, but will only ever represent a percentage of the required recipe. So many boxers who show promise are never taught to throw punches correctly. You wonder how their so-called trainers get a job.
This is not a modern disease. It has been going on since day one and a lot of potential talent has gone to waste as a result. There are legions of preliminary boys who have all the enthusiasm you could wish for, yet they punch incorrectly and know next to nothing about weight transference, pivoting or maximising the knockout power they might well possess. When they get back to their corners, three or four guys are then shouting instructions at them all at once.
All the while, these eager youngsters are getting clipped on the chin by sucker counter punches, because nobody told them that it is only advisable to hold you hands low if you know how to move your head. Do you ever see Bernard Hopkins holding his hands down or flapping when he punches? Do Floyd Mayweather, Erik Morales or Marco Antonio Barrera mess around like that? James Toney took the trouble to learn every trick in the book like Archie Moore and Charley Burley before him. Take a look at the way Toney and Mayweather protect themselves against incoming fire. They tuck up beautifully and rank among the best I have seen in that department. Much of their seemingly effortless power comes from doing everything else right.
At the end of it all, however, the mighty knockout blow and the commitment to throw it is a gift of the gods and not bestowed upon any old fighter who might look the part. Trainers who know their business specialise in honing and polishing rough diamonds. If the diamond isn’t part of the package, there is nothing to be had. Primo Carnera and Jess Willard were shattering proof of that fact. Nikolai Valuev, for all his 324lbs and thirty-one knockouts, suddenly seems to have gone gun-shy since sampling the thin air at the top of the mountain.
Earnie Shavers had no such problems. The big punches flowed and the opponents fell with blissful regularity for Earnie. A fighter doesn’t have to be a poor champion or a world champion at all in order to have the great gift. Those of you of a certain vintage will recall a contemporary of Earnie’s in the big-hitting Jeff Merritt.
Candy Slim, as he was known, was tall and lanky and possessed devastating power. He broke Shavers’ jaw in sparring and made his name by wrecking the fading Ernie Terrell in one round at Madison Square Garden in 1973. Merritt was 23-1 and prompting some excitable writers to reach for every superlative they could find. Two fights later, he was knocked out in one round by Henry Clark, a cute operator but never a big hitter. Then along came Stan Ward to knock out Jeff in three rounds, and that was pretty much it for Candy Slim.
Max Baer, so often derided for being a joker and a playboy, which indeed he was, was as natural a puncher as there ever was with his mighty right hand. When Max dropped the clowning and got serious, he was a frightening proposition. Cast the Carnera farce from your mind and look up Baer’s record. He was right up there with the very best heavyweights in the power rankings. In 1930, he gave Frankie Campbell such a ferocious beating at the Recreation Park in San Francisco that Frankie later died from his injuries. Three years later, when Ernie Schaaf failed to recover from his knockout at the hands of Primo Carnera, many believed that Ernie’s fatal injuries could be traced back to the shellacking he had previously received from Baer.
Max also administered a comprehensive and sustained beating to the peak-form Max Schmeling in their 1933 fight at Yankee Stadium, all of three years before Schmeling shocked Joe Louis.
Natural knockout punchers can look almost lazy and languid in their delivery. In the penultimate fight of his career, Ingemar Johansson knocked out Dick Richardson in the eight round of their European title fight at Gothenburg, with one of the most deceptively destructive blows I have ever seen. Richardson was a tough and rugged Welshman, yet he was pole axed by a short right that appeared to do little more than gently caress his chin.
The perfect knockout blow rarely travels more than a foot and the greatest compliment it can receive is when the opponent and the observer admit to not even seeing it. It is the suddenness that catches the breath as much as the following explosion.
When Earnie Shavers knocked out former WBA champion Jimmy Ellis in the opening round in 1973, the big bomb dropped out of nowhere. The two fighters had moved into a corner and were locked in a free-swinging exchange when Earnie pulled the trigger. One bang. ‘Twas ever thus with Shavers. One bang, the familiar crunch of the impact and Ellis appearing to partially disintegrate before he even began his fall.
I remember seeing a picture of one of Earnie’s sparring partners around that time, wrapped tightly in the kind of lagging you put around your water tank. He was a big and formidable fellow in his own right, but had grown weary of Shavers re-arranging his ribs during their lively sessions.
Shavers undoubtedly belongs with the all-time great heavyweight punchers, but in what context? I think the gentlemen of The Ring did a pretty good job of ranking him where they did.
The men above Earnie on that list were of equal power and even greater skill. Joe Louis had a master trainer in Jack Blackburn, an exceptionally good fighter in his own right in the early days of the last century. Louis was a natural, but he was never too proud to listen to sound advice and improve his technique. He was an eager student and all too happy to soak up Blackburn’s great wisdom. Joe could nail his prey early or late, with a single shot or with a volley. He could feint, shift and appear to thread a knockout blow through the eye of a needle. He was an old man when he put Jersey Joe Walcott to sleep in the eleventh round of their rematch.
Jack Dempsey was over the hill when he produced two of his most famous left hooks in despatching Jack Sharkey and very nearly doing the same to Gene Tunney.
Sam Langford, with his powerful, thick-set body and abnormally long wingspan, was similarly blessed with natural power, knocking out an incredible 130 of his recorded 182 victims, from lightweight to heavyweight. In the latter part of his career, when his eyesight was severely deteriorating, Sam’s instinct was such that he was still lowering the boom on opponents by listening out for their footwork and anticipating their next move.
Like Langford, Bob Fitzsimmons was also able to carry his power up through the weight classes, although it was as a middleweight that he was most destructive. At a time when Australia was a hot bed of fistic talent, Ruby Robert racked up a string of impressive knockouts during his seven-year campaign there from 1883. The famous solar plexus punch with which Fitzsimmons relieved James J Corbett of his heavyweight title at Carson City in 1897, was a potent and debilitating blow.
To ascertain just how hard George Foreman could hit, we have the testament of that perennial tough guy contender, George Chuvalo, who compared the effect to being struck by a Cadillac going at 50mph. One can only hope that Chuvalo didn’t have to suffer the latter experience in order to be able to make the analogy.
Foreman could destroy opponents in any way he had to, and he didn’t have to swing around the houses as he did on his night of madness with Muhammad Ali. As a creaking old timer, George pulled out one of the shortest and most lethal punchers you could wish to see in his sudden annihilation of Michael Moorer.
In such exalted company, Earnie Shavers stacks up pretty well in sixth place. But here is the one strong opinion I have on this issue. I don’t believe that Earnie should be ahead of Rocky Marciano.
Allow me to say at this point that I am not one of those blind Marciano junkies. On the statistical Top 20 rankings of the great heavyweights on my website, I have Rocky in fourth place. Look below that at my personal, gut-feeling top ten, and I have him ninth. I rest my case.
What does rankle with me no end is that this 187lb ring marvel, who had short arms, short legs and virtually no formal boxing education when he started out, has suddenly become everyone’s favourite whipping boy. Does all the spite really boil down to that niggling 49-0 record and the few lucky breaks that come the way of every great champion?
Marciano, of all the great men I have discussed here, was probably the most able practitioner of utilising his punching power to the maximum. Charley Goldman, a great little trainer, laboured over Rocky for hours at a time in the gym when he first began to teach him, sometimes employing the most fundamental routines in drilling his charge on the important points of balance, weight distribution and the correct method of punching.
Like Louis before him, Rocky sucked it all up and learned. At his peak, he didn’t just knock men out, he broke their hearts and occasionally busted the blood vessels in their arms.
When Muhammad Ali hooked up with Rocky to film the outcome of their famous computer fight in the late sixties, The Greatest was agog at how hard his opponent could clout after some friendly fire had found the target. By that time, Marciano had been retired for some fifteen years.
Joe Louis once said of Rocky, “He doesn’t know too much about the boxing book, but it wasn’t a boxing book he hit me with. It was a whole library of bone crushers.”
Jersey Joe Walcott, who suffered at the hands of both Louis and Marciano, pointed out that the Brown Bomber mostly took out his opponents with combinations, but that Rocky was “… a one punch artist. With all respect to Joe, Marciano hit harder.”
Jack Dempsey was unstinting in his praise of The Rock. “I’ve scored my share of knockdowns along the way, but more often than not my opponents got up after being knocked down and had to be knocked down repeatedly. The same is true of Joe Louis. But Marciano needs only one solid smash and it’s all over.”
George Foreman rates Marciano the second greatest heavyweight of all time behind Louis, while former middleweight and welterweight champ Carmen Basilio has no doubts that Rocky could cut the mustard in the present era. “Today he’d look like a midget against some of those heavyweights around, but he’d clobber them all.”
The ‘It’ factor
If there is one common denominator that links all the men on our list, it is the indefinable ‘it’ factor. In short, they were all unforgettable and Earnie Shavers would surely have to share top billing with anyone for sheer thrills.
I will certainly never forget the night in September, 1979, when the man they called Mister Devastation came to visit me in my hotel room in Salt Lake City. Not literally, you understand. Earnie was actually in the neighbouring state of Nevada, priming himself in his corner to commit his usual brand of mayhem on WBC champ Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace.
But I felt that Shavers was with me in spirit at least and I needed a trusted companion after a long and hot day. Splayed out on my vibrating bed, which didn’t vibrate, every bone in my body ached. It was a cheap hotel in more ways than one. It didn’t even have the obligatory cheap pimp who taps gently on your door at the appropriate hour and slips you the details of some versatile honey who will dance to the music of your choice.
But at least the TV set worked with the aid of a mild left hook, and so everything was riding on the wondrous Earnie Shavers to provide the evening’s thrills and spills.
It was Earnie’s second and final fling at the big bauble and things didn’t look promising for six rounds as the clever Holmes prudently jabbed, moved and circled.
Then came the seventh. The arrival of the magic moment. In one frenzied flash, the roof of Caesars seemed to fall straight into the ring. Shavers finally connected with a thunderous right to the jaw and Holmes was in another land, his communication cord severed, his body hurling backwards.
Earnie, like so many natural punchers, seemed oddly detached from the mighty explosion he had created. As Larry’s body slammed to the deck, it was as if he had been uprooted by a detonation from below the canvas.
Springing up on my bed and knocking over my drink, I remember yelling an unpleasant variation of my lord and saviour’s name, which is not a good thing to do in downtown Salt Lake. Holmes was out. He had to be. He was on his back with stiffened arms and legs, his body jerking from the aftershock. It was then, not for the first time in his career, that Larry showed the heart of a lion. Incredibly, he got up. He was swaying and rocking and reeling, but he was back in the fray. As he tottered and staggered and Shavers chased and flailed, I suffered a temporary loss of what any self-respecting writer should hold dear: his impartiality. It was a big time loss too. “You’ve got him, Earnie!” I shouted. “Pull the trigger, man, pull the trigger!”
God alone knows what the folks in the next room made of that. Earnie fired and fired again, but Holmes gutted it out to survive one of the most harrowing rounds of his career.
And that was it. One round against the grain, one terrific bolt out of the blue, and then the anti-climax of Shavers running out of steam and going down to a TKO defeat in the eleventh. The normal picture had been resumed after a brief and violent rush of static.
In bed that night, I kept thinking about that seventh round. Shavers had the greatest prize of all in his hands, only to let it slip through his fingers like a bar of soap. He was the champion elect and then he wasn’t. The moment had passed, the chance had gone.
No matter. Perhaps the Earnie Shavers story would have lost its romance if Mister Devastation had stepped over the threshold that night and won the heavyweight title. The big shark would have surfaced and lost its aura of mystery and menace.
In all honesty, I don’t know where old Earnie should be on that list of ours. What I know for sure is that the immensely likeable, dangerous and downright thrilling Mr Shavers thoroughly deserves his place in the pantheon of boxing’s glory boys.
MIKE CASEY is a boxing journalist and historian, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization and founder and editor of The Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for boxing historians and fans. (www.grandslampage.net)
Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott, Jack Dempsey and Carmen Basilio quotes from ROCKY MARCIANO website.
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