The year was 1979. New television ads by Coke and Ford, “Have a Coke and a smile” and “Quality is job one,” were hitting the airwaves. The year’s World Series pitted the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles while new television channels like Nickelodeon and ESPN had just launched and begun broadcasting.
On an early Fall evening in late September, Larry Holmes was poised to make the fourth defense of his WBC Heavyweight crown against Earnie Shavers.
Prior to winning the title, Holmes had tangled with Shavers just 18 months prior and earned a dominant, unanimous decision. A man that could never be counted out due to his colossal punching power, Shavers had bounced back after the Holmes loss by ringing up five straight victories. One of those wins included a brutal first-round knockout over highly regarded and top ranked Ken Norton.
Now the No. 1 contender, the 34 year old Shavers (58-7-1, 56 KOs) was eyeing a rematch with the undefeated Holmes. Not on the level of Holmes in terms of boxing prowess, Shavers had heart, determination and the God-given gift to change a fight with one punch.
Born in Garland, Alabama, Shavers had matched will and skill with some of the biggest names in the sport. He had beaten men like Jimmy Young and Jimmy Ellis while suffering defeats at the hands Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle and Muhammad Ali.
Against Ali, Shavers had earned tremendous respect going the distance in losing a hard fought unanimous decision. The bout was so brutal that Ali’s doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, encouraged Ali to retire after the fight. Ali praised Shavers’ punching power when he later said, “Earnie hit me so hard it shook my kinfolk back in Africa.”
Holmes (31-0, 22 KOs), from Easton, PA was nicknamed the Easton Assassin. He had beaten Ken Norton to earn the WBC Heavyweight championship of the world in June of 1978. As champion, Holmes’ reputation grew stronger as he defended his title earning consecutive knockout victories against Alfredo Evangelista and Ossie Ocasio.
At 29, Holmes was facing harsh criticism for his previous performance against Mike Weaver. Although winning his third title defense by knockout, many suggested he looked lethargic and listless. A heavy underdog, Weaver gave the champion all he wanted before succumbing from a vicious uppercut and eventual TKO in the 12th round.
In succeeding Ali as champion, Holmes’ reign as was often compared to and scrutinized to Ali’s. There was no escaping the impending contrasts to a man many still call “the greatest.” Holmes, who was a former sparring partner of Ali, always spoke highly of the former champion yet wasn’t looking to emulate him. As Holmes would frequently say, “I don’t have to keep up with the Joneses I just have to keep up with the Holmeses.”
Days before the showdown, Howard Cosell, Shavers and Holmes sat poolside in the sun at Caesar’s to discuss the rematch. Both were confident that they would not only win, but would emerge victorious by knockout. In fact, each predicted a scenario in which they would win by a fifth-round knockout.
Scheduled for 15 rounds, the fight would be held at the Caesars Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas. Fans packed the Pavilion as some very recognizable faces like Diana Ross, Joe DiMaggio and Carey Grant sat ringside.
On a Friday night, the bout was aired live on ABC Wide World of Sports with the legendary Cosell ringside to call the blow-by-blow action.
Shavers entered first with his trainer Frank Luca leading the way. He was wearing a white robe with towels draped over his head and around his neck. Once in the ring, ABC cameras showed that Holmes was still having his gloves tied in the dressing room by trainer Richie Giachetti. They were making the challenger wait. Shavers didn’t seem to mind, smiling, laughing and waiving at fans seated ringside while waiting for the champion.
After several minutes, Holmes made his way to the ring. Led by Giachetti and with “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” ringing through the arena, Holmes entered wearing a long red robe trimmed in white.
Both men appeared to be in superb condition as Shavers weighed in at 213 pounds and Holmes at 210. At 6’3”, Holmes enjoyed a three inch height advantage over the 6’0″ tall Shavers. With both men now in the ring, ring announcer Chuck Hull introduced the fighters and the referee, Davey Pearl.
The early rounds were a textbook definition of what a matchup between a boxer and a puncher looks like. Holmes, the boxer, bounced on his toes and circled the ring while pumping his left jab at Shavers. The puncher, Shavers, followed Holmes and stalked him nearly every minute of every round.
Shavers employed what amounted to a peek-a-boo style defense, hands up high, pursuing Holmes while firing vicious right hands to the head and body. After three rounds, much like their first fight, Holmes’ superior boxing skills controlled the action.
Late in the fourth round, Shavers showed blood from his left eye. He was damaged again in the sixth round as blood began to stream from his right eye. Holmes bright white trunks were now stained pink from Shavers’ blood.
In between rounds, Shavers corner complained of a Holmes thumb, arguing that it caused the damage to their fighter’s eye. As Cosell saw and heard the exchange he described it to the viewers at home. “Earnie Shavers left eye very red, appears to be in bad shape. Frank Luca said to referee Dave Peal ‘He thumbed him in the eye and what did you do about it’? Dave Peal said ‘Knock-it off, he never thumbed him. He hit him!’”
All three scorecards would later reveal Holmes was up big after six rounds were complete.
The seventh round began with Cosell proclaiming, “Tremendous blood out of the right eye of Earnie Shavers. Holmes is relentless in the use of the left jab. Shavers fighting half-blindly now.”
With 40 seconds remaining in the round, both lighting and thunder struck. As Holmes was bouncing on his toes and firing his left jab, Shavers timed a perfect overhand right that impaled on the side of Holmes face. Like a block pulled from the bottom of a tall Jenga tower, Holmes crashed to the canvas in a heap. With one punch, Shavers had changed the course of the action. Cosell screamed, “The right hand! Devastating right caught him!”
As Holmes climbed to his feet, fans were evenly split at ringside as some had a look of stunned disbelief while others displayed raw excitement over the Shavers power. Many were on their feet screaming and pumping their fists in the air as Shavers went in for the kill.
Cosell continued, “Holmes is staggering. He is wobbly. He is holding on! He got clocked with that Earnie Shavers right! Earnie is wild trying to get at Holmes! Earnie swinging wildly! Holmes, defenseless, taking it from Shavers! What noise! What a turn of events!”
Holmes regained control in the eighth as he kept Shavers at bay, again circling and using the long left jab. Cosell continued, “But now, all eyes are focused on that Shavers right as Holmes runs. And do you blame him? This fight has become something!”
In rounds nine and 10, Holmes continued to control the action. Seemingly back in command, he opened up with vicious combinations. Out of nowhere, Shavers stepped in and blasted Holmes with an overhand right and again floored the champion in the 10th round.
There wasn’t a person in sight sitting as the crowd at Caesars was in a frenzy. Incredibly, Pearl ruled it a slip. In between rounds, a confused Cosell commented, “I have just talked with referee Dave Peal, who said ‘I ruled that a slip, the blow was on the shoulder. I ruled it a slip, not a knockdown.’”
Entering the 11th, Holmes began wailing away at Shavers with hooks and uppercuts. As Shavers was taking tremendous punishment, Holmes pressed him against the ropes and launched a final attack unleashing the better part of his arsenal. An avalanche of punches landed to the head and to the body as Pearl stepped in to halt the action.
Holmes had survived winning by TKO at exactly two minutes of the eleventh round.
Summarizing the excitement of the night, Cosell described the evening’s events, “The crowd is still here. No one has left. They realized that a boxing lesson turned suddenly into a brawl.”
Shavers would not get another title shot after the second loss to Holmes. He retired in 1983 and later attempted a pair of comebacks that were not successful. In 1982, Shavers was invited to the set of Rocky III as Sylvester Stallone toyed with the idea of using a professional fighter to play the part of Clubber Lang. Shavers was tentative is sparring with Stallone who then encouraged him to show more fire. In heeding that advice, he whacked Stallone hard to the body who would later say, “That nearly killed me. I went straight to the men’s room and threw up.”
Holmes continued his domination of the division and scored dominant wins over Ali, Gerry Cooney and Marvis Frazier. After running his record to 48-0, he was twice beaten by Michael Spinks and stepped away from the ring in the Spring of 1986. Holmes would return multiple times and continue to fight the best in the division. Although losing to Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, he would score wins over Oliver McCall and Ray Mercer. Holmes last fought in July of 2002 and was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2008.