The Hardest Puncher Ever Born: The Sportsman Interviews Earnie Shavers

Shavers went toe-to-toe with some of the best fighter's ever in a golden era for boxing
15:30, 03 Apr 2021

It was in 1977 at Madison Square Garden that Shavers pushed Muhammad Ali all the way to fifteen rounds. Considered one of the biggest hitters in boxing history, from the late sixties until the mid-eighties, Shavers took to the ring in a golden era and went toe-to-toe with all of the big names, combining stunning power and an iron fist. 

Ali, the People’s Champion famously once claimed, “Earnie hit me so hard, it shook my kinfolk back in Africa!” Meanwhile, Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb said, “The first right he threw missed and landed on my shoulder. It felt like someone had dropped a bowling ball on my shoulder.”

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It was perhaps former heavyweight James Tillis who best described the sensation as he plummeted onto his face in Las Vegas after a crunching shot from Shavers.

“I was in the land of make-believe. I heard saxophones, trombones. I saw little blue rats, and they were all smoking cigars and drinking whisky.”

“I heard quotes like those from everyone,” says Shavers during an exclusive chat with The Sportsman alongside his good friend, former Scouse boxer, Kenny Rainford.

“Everyone I fought said I hit the hardest they’d ever been hit in their life. Every shot, face, shoulder, elbow, knee, hurt you.”

Rainford concurs, “I sparred with Earnie, he hit me and the next day I had a bruise the size of a grapefruit on my hip… when he’s tapping you it feels like a brick. Whatever he hits, he knocks over or knocks out!”

He even took to the ring at 64 and hit his opponent so hard the younger guy broke his ankle under the force as he dropped to the floor.

Boasting immense power, Shavers packed a serious punch like no other and it was for that reason, when in later life as a greeter on the doors at bars in Birkenhead and Liverpool, he was revered by all who saw him during their nights out on the town as he welcomed them.

However, with so many great names battling to be the best during his spell in the sport, Shavers somehow hung his gloves up having never been champion.

“It’s bad luck but great luck,” he says of the era he was born.

Pointing to the fact Shavers is more famous than many of the fighters who have followed him, even world champions, Rainford insists: “All of that golden era, Ron Lyle, Jerry Quarry, Joe Bugner… as Earnie points out, not only the top ten but the top twenty in his day, could have been a world champion.

“They are in the annals of history and they’ll be revered and remembered forever.”

Rainford is in awe of his great mate Shavers and it was because of a chance introduction between the pair that the Alabama-born boxer, who turns 76 at the end of this month, spent a decade between 1998 and 2008 living on Merseyside.

Having first spotted him on Grandstand when Shavers struck Jimmy Ellis with a stunning uppercut back in 1973, ten years later a mutual friend in Ohio, knowing his admiration for the fighter, passed on his number. “Earnie would be glad to hear from you.”

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“I plucked up the courage to call,” says Rainford, “and we hit it off and have been friends ever since. Later, he came to visit and gave me tips as a boxer before he and my Auntie got friendly and fell in love. He moved over and worked alongside me on the doors.”

He is written into local folklore in these parts having battered the best with his unbelievable punching prowess.

Shavers once claimed, "Only God hits harder than me" and he still holds that belief. 

“I firmly believe I’m the hardest puncher ever born,” he confidently insists. “People may be able to match me with their best shot for one of mine but everyone of mine has got killer written on it.” 

So, did such strength to hit his opponents like a freight train in one fell swoop of his right hand come naturally or did he have to work to turn himself into such a battering ram of a fighter?

“The first day I walked in the gym I was knocking people out. It’s all natural.” he insists.

“He worked on cars when he was younger,” Kenny tells us, “And he had the ability to undo bolts, bolts we’d need a spanner for, with his bare hands. He was just an incredibly powerful man - he used to be able to lift an engine block on his own too!”

So scarily powerful, both Joe Frazier and George Foreman told boxing writer Jerry Eisenberg they would never fight Shavers, Frazier claiming, “I probably would have beaten him but I wouldn’t have been able to deal with the pain on the way to winning.”

However, while Shavers struck serious fear into his opponents, such freakishly big hitting power had its drawbacks for the man himself.

“Being such a big puncher actually hurt my career,” says Shavers. “I relied on my power too much. I wish I’d had trainers that could have taught me more about combination punches.

“I used to gas out in five or six rounds because I put that much effort into my punches and it was impossible to punch for an entire fight without tiring out.”

During his early years, Shavers spent twelve months working with controversial boxing promoter Don King. He would call Earnie and Jeff Merritt, the next heavyweight champions of the world.

“I won’t have a bad word said about Don,” says Shavers. “Don had a reputation for conning people, but that’s Don. You know what you’re getting into when you’re with him and I have nothing but praise for him. He was good to me.”

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Larry Holmes too, was another man Shavers had respect for, naming him alongside Ali as the greatest boxer of all-time.

“It was always a long night fighting Larry, that jab was phenomenal. He was 6’4” and had big long arms. It was a major feat just slipping the jab let alone getting under it and working the body.”

While his supreme upper body strength and physique was all genetic, Shavers grew up on a farm and would throw bales of hay and chop wood. He did the same when, at 33, he took on Muhammad Ali. For nine weeks, he didn’t see his family as he trained for three days solid before a single day off and repeated this throughout the 63 days. 

“The build-up to the fight was amazing,” he says. “I had a nine week training camp in Ohio, in an old converted barn. I trained so hard the weight started dropping so I started eating ice cream. It was a red hot summer and I WAS running through hills and meadows, five to eight miles a time, before intense training in the afternoon where I would chop wood ahead of lifting heavy bags and jumping rope in the gym.

He trained like never before for the Ali fight and the bout changed everything.

“I got the biggest purse of my life, $300,000 - millions in today’s money - I became a household name and a celebrity that night. I took Ali to the wire and Round 15 was picked as Round of the Year while I also scooped the ‘Most Inspirational Fighter Award’.

Having trained at Ali’s Deer Lake for his fight with Jimmy Ellis in 1973, Shavers revealed, “I always had a great relationship with Ali right to the very end, we were friends forever.”

In the years that followed, Rainford met Ali and asked him about the famous fight with Shavers.

“I can not remember the last round of our fight,” Ali admitted. “He hit me so hard that for fourteenth round, I was on autopilot. I can’t remember a thing. When I’ve watched the fight back, and see the way I rallied in the fifteenth round, I was doing that off memory.”

Shavers reigned down on Ali with 266 punches that night. Afterwards, Rainford claims, the New York commission stated Ali would never fight in New York again after doctors found tears on his brain.

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Supremely confident in his ability as a fighter and ruthless in the ring, one wonders what Earnie is like when you really get to know him?

“Earnie is very generous, to a fault in fact, he’d give you his last penny,” explains his pal Rainford. “Just don’t rub him up the wrong way. He’s the nicest person in the world but he can also be the most vicious if provoked!”

This is true, as one man brave (or stupid) enough to take Shavers on found out to his cost. While working on the doors, a big, in all senses of the word, group of lads on a stag-do from Newcastle came into the bar.

“Earnie wasn’t a bouncer, he was a greeter,” says Rainford. “One Saturday, there was stag-do and the smallest guy out of the lot looked like Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago in Rocky IV). There was another guy who was like a round barrel, easily 30 stone of him, who tried to leave the bar with a bottle in his hand which was illegal, so I told him, ‘Do me a favour,go back inside with the bottle.

“Later, he and his mates came out, happy as Larry having pictures with the ‘great Earnie Shavers’. Then the same bloke comes out with two bottles again.

“Ernie got hold of his wrist and said ‘that man has asked you nicely, do not break the law.’ He wasn’t listening, asking, ‘Who is going to stop me?’ and before you know it, another guy working with us has knocked the man clean out.

“His mates pour out and I think that we have a major problem because they are all big units, until one seems to have some sense and, with his hand on Earnie’s shoulder, tells his mates to calm down and to have some respect because Earnie has fought Ali.

“As he said it, he stole it on Earnie with a right hander! Earnie went down to one knee but jumped up, hit him with a jab and then a right hand right on his chin! It knocked him clean out, before Earnie continued to knock out another two. It was like a murder scene. All these lads in the square laid out.”

Shavers left Merseyside in 2008, recently moving from Vegas to North Carolina where his daughter resides. Everyone fortunate enough to know him in Liverpool have missed his presence dearly and Rainford admits the bar died a little when Earnie departed. 

He will be remembered in Liverpool as one of the warmest, most famous greeters but for boxing lovers the world over, Earnie Shavers will go down as one of the biggest hitters the sport has ever seen.

This article first appeared in The Sportsman on 22/08/20.

Shavers with his good friend Kenny Rainford
Shavers with his good friend Kenny Rainford
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