“A Champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.” Jack Dempsey, World Heavyweight Champion from 1919 to 1926, was the man who spoke those excellently chosen words, for he, of all men, would know. When asked about whether or not he was knocked down in his early career, Dempsey went on to say, “When I was a young fellow I was knocked down plenty. I wanted to stay down, but I couldn’t. I had to collect the two dollars for winning or go hungry. I had to get up. I was one of those hungry fighters. You could have hit me on the chin with a sledgehammer for five dollars. When you haven’t eaten for two days you’ll understand.” The bottom line is Dempsey was “one of those hungry fighters”; and 60 years later, so was the WBC Champion, 29 year old Larry Holmes.
When Larry entered the ring at Caesar’s Palace to make the fourth defense of his crown against Earnie Shavers on September 28th, 1979, for all intents and purposes, he was THE World Heavyweight Champion. Muhammad Ali had once again (and, seemingly, once and for all) announced his retirement three weeks before on September 6th, and the WBA had finally declared their title vacant. Though John Tate and Gerrie Coetzee would be meeting in South Africa on October 20th to determine who would be Ali’s successor on paper, the eyes of the world were focused on the Vegas strip.
Larry Holmes had put some of his credentials to question in the minds of a few with his last outing against unknown Mike Weaver, a seeming mismatch which turned out to be a fight for his professional life; but that inner hunger of Larry’s pulled him out of a tight spot with a sensational 11th round knockdown which led to the stoppage and the successful defense of his championship one round later. When the going got tough, as the saying goes, “Big Jack” got going.
You could see the confidence on Larry’s face as he jogged to the ring to face Shavers to the strands of McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”; he was on the move. He knew the world didn’t care about Tate and Coetzee. He was the one who’d warred with Norton. He was the one who’d easily outboxed Shavers a little more than a year ago. All one had to do was glance across the crowd to see Joe DiMaggio, Cary Grant, and numerous other celebrities who had come to see him defend his heavyweight championship. Marvin Gaye was singing the national anthem before his fight. He had arrived. Muhammad Ali was gone and Larry Holmes was the new sheriff in town.
But when the echoes of the opening bell began to fade, the Vegas crowd began chanting, “EARNIE, EARNIE, EARNIE!!” They had seen Shavers destroy Ken Norton in less than three minutes barely six months ago, the same Ken Norton who’d given Holmes and Ali hell. Very few things excite a fight crowd like a knockout, the more devastating, the better; and Earnie Shavers was nothing if not devastating. Since his loss to Holmes, the Warren, Ohio native had parted ways with Blackie Genaro and taken on Frank Luca as his new manager. To his mind, a welcome change which allowed him to focus more on the task at hand.
Tension was thick in the first round. One could see from the outset that this Larry Holmes was a different man from the one who’d outpointed Shavers last year. He was far more serious and intent on doing damage, was putting far more pop behind his punches. While he was smart in his movement, it was clear he was looking to knock Earnie Shavers out and not merely avoid the man-called-a-monster for 15 rounds.
Earnie had a look of serious intent about him as well. At age 36, the odds were that if he couldn’t do it tonight, he would very likely never get another chance at the heavyweight championship. From the start, Shavers showed more purpose on working the body and cutting the ring off and not just waiting for the right hand to land. He was pacing himself; but you got the distinct feeling that if Larry made one mistake, it would be the only one.
The 31-0 champion was in the best shape of his career, or appeared to be at 210 lbs. to Shavers’ 211. For most of the first two rounds, he stayed out of range of Shavers’ bombs while keeping his man outside with a piston-like jab, doubling it and tripling it at times. Shavers landed his own jab about two-thirds through the 2nd, causing Holmes to take a step back into the ropes; but as soon as his back touched the strands, he slid along them and out of danger.
The third saw Larry coming out on his toes. He was mixing up his game plan now, to keep Earnie off balance, guessing what he was going to do next, while showing the world how diverse a fighter he truly was. The tactic, while effective, seemed to awaken Shavers as he stepped it up as well. Towards the end of the round, first his jab and then a grazing right caught Holmes, causing him to retreat.
Both men had predicted a 5th Round knockout. Larry began mixing in some right hand leads, and landed some serious ones before the end of the 4th, opening up a cut along Earnie’s left eye. Larry’s hands were too fast, he was just too clever, too mobile. Every time Shavers would get close to catching Larry along the ropes, he was gone. “The Easton Assassin” couldn’t have been executing a more perfect fight plan and by the 6th, Shavers looked like a man lost in the woods.
The desperation had begun to emerge late in the 5th when Shavers began throwing bombs from way out of range, haymakers which never had a chance of even catching the shadow of where Larry once stood. When Larry came out in the 6th on his toes again, he was poetry in motion with Shavers being as easy to hit as the broad side of a barn. You could see the confidence growing in the young champion. He could feel it. He began really opening up, throwing multiple combinations with blinding speed and vicious intent, rocking the challenger, and opening up another cut along Earnie’s right eye. The end was beginning to come into view.
Seconds into the 7th, thanks to Larry’s rapier-like jab, Shavers face was a crimson mask. Fighting through the blood, he bulled his way in close to Holmes and landed a looping right which stunned the champion and brought the crowd to their feet. Larry was starting to show some signs of fatigue; but nothing like Shavers. Earnie was fighting like a man who felt if he was going to do it, he had to do it now. Desperation flowed from every punch. Some he missed, some he landed; and you could tell the champion felt everyone which made it home. With less than a minute left in the round, Larry separated himself from his opponent to fire a jab. He dropped it just a little too much and that’s when it happened.
There are any number of words one can use to describe the punch which crashed into Larry Holmes’ jaw. There are a multitude of adjectives and descriptives which could be vainly typed down to accurately depict that photon bomb which went off on Larry’s mandible or the distinct sound which it made when leather hit skin and a pocket of air between the two was forced out at supersonic speed.
All of these would fall utterly short of the reality.
Larry Holmes should not have gotten up from that punch. It’s hard to imagine any human getting off the canvas after being blasted with a concussive explosion like that. Years later, Larry would say that he thought Earnie must have hit him too hard because he saw a bright flash of light and it woke him up. He was out; and then he was awake. He even went on to say if Earnie hadn’t hit him so hard, he probably would have knocked him out. This was the reality of that punch: it was an Earnie Shavers right hand thrown with full force in a straight line, through the target. It was perfect.
Somehow, Larry got up and survived the round and the follow up punches, as well as had the wits about him to avoid most of them. And then, came out and attacked Shavers in the 8th. He came out on his toes and with one thing in mind, regaining control. And towards the end of the round, stunned Earnie and opened up with Earnie trying to counter wildly in return.
More and more Larry began loading up on an exhausted Shavers. Uppercuts, right hands, left hooks. What was once a boxing match became a brawl with Shavers looking all done in; but still winging whenever Holmes got careless. In the 9th, he wailed back after a blistering Holmes barrage, connecting on Larry’s shoulder so hard it sent him to the canvas again; but the referee ruled it a “slip”. Such was the power of even an exhausted Earnie Shavers.
There are very few things which affect you mentally as much as hitting a man with your best shot, only to have him look at you. You can feel confidence and even energy and will slip away; and that’s for the average Joe. When a man, who is used to his opponents vaporizing before him when he connects, sees an opponent get up from his best punch, one can only imagine the psychological effects. Earnie was already tired, going into the 7th Round; but any reserve of energy he had seemed to evaporate when Larry arose and went on the attack. It seemed to suck the fight right out of him.
The referee, Davey Pearl finally called a halt to matters in the eleventh. Shavers had begun voluntarily collapsing into the ropes in the 9th and had done it off and on for the final two stanzas of the fight. He simply didn’t have anything left. That punch he’d landed in the 7th, apparently had taken it all out of him. The beginning of the end was when he knocked Larry Holmes down and the Champion got back up.
A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.Contact the Feature Writers