Muhammad Ali faced one of the toughest nights of his career on this day 45 years ago. ‘The Greatest’ was taken 15 bruising rounds by Earnie Shavers in defence of the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. While Ali triumphed via unanimous decision, the pounding he took at the iron fists of Shavers would weigh heavily on his body. The champion was never quite the same fighter again.
Ali was on the run of his life heading into the Shavers fight. The dancing destroyer of his 1960s pomp had been lost to a three-year ban for refusing the Vietnam War draft. But the signature victories of Ali’s career actually took place after his reinstatement. Ali had won his last 13 fights going into 1977’s bout with Earnie. This run included the twin-iconography of The Rumble in the Jungle and The Thrilla in Manila. Ali had also settled his trilogy with Ken Norton, winning two controversial decisions. Top talent like Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young had fallen while this streak also featured the champion’s Rocky-inspiring victory over Chuck Wepner. In short, this was Ali during the period most people remember him for.
Earnie Shavers had yet to write his legacy. His defining nights were ahead of him. What he did have was 54 wins from 61 fights. Quick victories over era standouts Jimmy Young and Jimmy Ellis demonstrated the power that saw Shavers nicknamed ‘Puncher of the Century’. Shavers had existed on the fringes of world level for years. Now he had the chance to punch his way into the history books against the finest heavyweight the world would ever see.
Madison Square Garden in New York City was the fitting venue for this titanic tussle. Site of legendary Ali nights against Frazier, Oscar Bonavena and Doug Jones, ‘The Greatest’ was almost part of the furniture of the grand old venue. Shavers had fought there twice and felt the highs and lows of the hurt business. In back-to-back bouts in 1973, Shavers had won one and lost one at MSG. Both fights ended in the first round. Boxing is a sport of extremes, after all.
This fight would be defined by its extremes too. Namely, the rigorous abuse Ali was ready and willing to go through to retain his title. At the age of 35 and with seemingly every quintessential victory behind him, one could forgive the former Cassius Clay from resting on his laurels. But neither man in the ring in Midtown Manhattan could have realised another classic Ali victory was about to enter the history books.
As early as the second round, it was clear this title battle would be far closer than most anticipated. This was not the Shavers who was knocked out in one round by Jerry Quarry in this very same ring four years before. This was a man possessed. A man consumed with the idea of knocking out Muhammad Ali. In the second round he almost did. An overhand right sent Ali careening into the ropes. He composed himself and waved Shavers in, a bit of gamesmanship penetrating the mental fog. Shavers was reluctant, his rage and strength from seconds before nullified by uncertainty. A couple more barrelling rights followed, but they didn't have the same effect. Ali survived.
Shavers would take a front row seat for the Muhammad Ali Greatest Hits during the next few rounds. There was the rope-a-dope, fresh from the stages of Zaire to New York, just a stone’s throw from Broadway. The Ali shuffle got one of its last proper outings, leaving Shavers pawing at thin air like he was Sonny Liston or Henry Cooper a decade before. Pure, signature ‘Louisville Lip’ gamesmanship got him through to the championship rounds, having a little too much savvy for the powerful but rudimentary fighter he had dubbed ‘The Acorn’ in the build-up.
Angelo Dundee, Ali’s feted trainer, never missed a trick. When he learned television network NBC would be broadcasting the official scorecards after each round, he hatched a plan. Dundee stationed a member of his team backstage watching a television set, then had the scores relayed to him. This tipped the legendary boxing sage off to the fact that with three rounds remaining, Shavers would need a knockout to beat his man. Unfortunately for Dundee and Ali, Shavers went all-out in search of it.
The big man had never been beyond 10 rounds in his career, but here he was in the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th. The rounds ticked by and Shavers enjoyed his best moments of the fight. His clubbing shots, of which it was once said they could bring down the walls of a city, nearly pounded Ali into dust. It is impossible to watch this onslaught today, knowing what lay in both Ali’s immediate and distant future, and not see this as a devastating watershed. Ali survived by virtue of his chin and toughness alone. Under-reported traits of the legend that are rarely mentioned because he only occasionally needed them, such was his all-round ring mastery.
Mystifyingly, Ali found a second wind in the 15th round. The great champion was dazzling, perhaps boxing the last truly great round of his career as he had Shavers almost ready to go. It was Shavers’ turn to survive and, to his eternal credit, he did so admirably. The unanimous decision in Ali’s favour was academic. He would keep the heavyweight championship. But he lost a lot more in that New York ring.
Ali would later reflect that Shavers had struck him so hard “it shook my kinfolk back in Africa”. Big Earnie used that power to rattle a few more top heavyweights. While he never wore the title, he gave Larry Holmes all he could handle across two dramatic fights, knocking down ‘The Easton Assassin’ but losing both. He would also register a signature win over the great Ken Norton, before retiring for good in 1995. Shavers spent some time living in the UK and was a popular figure in Liverpool nightlife, serving as a doorman. I doubt many punters tried it on with the boxing legend.
Ali began the slow, painful march to retirement after this fight. Seven-fight novice Leon Spinks defeated him for the championship in his next outing. Ali would reclaim the belt for a record third time in a rematch. But still ‘The Greatest’ could not walk away for good. A two-year retirement was snapped when he fought Holmes. The one-sided beatdown he received is one of the most upsetting fights ever committed to tape. His final fight, a decision loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981, was not much better.
Ali hung up his gloves and his health declined. History’s most iconic heavyweight was stricken with Parkinson’s Disease for the remainder of his life. The mile-a-minute speech patterns lost to the annals of time. He was still endearingly cheeky, still quick with a joke and still reportedly a warm and loving gentleman. But one cannot help but wonder if his ailments were preventable and whether the abuse he took in this fight, and the ones that followed, was necessary.
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