Forty years ago? That’s how long it’s been since former undisputed heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali made his last successful defense of the title he won for the second time from George Foreman three years earlier. On September 29th, 1977, Ali 54-2 (37), won a 15-round unanimous decision over dynamite punching Earnie Shavers 54-5-1 (52) at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It would be the last fight Ali would ever win when dressing as the world heavyweight champion.
Going into the Shavers bout Ali, was five months shy of turning 36 and his unparalleled career was winding down. Ali said prior to fighting the 33-year old Shavers that he had lost interest in boxing and was tired of the grind, but was making too much money to retire. Ali was also a very placid man by the time he fought Shavers, having settled his score with the first fighter to beat him, “Smokin” Joe Frazier, whom he defeated in their 1974 rematch and then again in their 1975 rubber match. He had also settled the score with the only other fighter to beat him, Ken Norton, by virtue of winning two close decisions over him, the first in their 1973 rematch and then in September of 1976.
The one opponent who most fans wanted Ali to face again was former champ George Foreman, and it was close to happening. Had Foreman, as the number one ranked contender, defeated third ranked Jimmy Young in March of 1977, Ali would have had to defend the title against Foreman or be stripped of it if he refused. Young shocked the boxing world when he upset Foreman, winning a 12 round unanimous decision, which led to George retiring in his dressing room after the fight. With Ali having already defeated Young in April of 1976, Shavers, the next highest ranked contender, got the title shot that Foreman looked to be on his way to securing.
By the fall of 1977 it was abundantly clear that Muhammad Ali was a superstar of incredible magnitude with no rival in either the sports world or Hollywood. He was the most recognizable person in the world and his bouts were major events that were comprehensively covered. Another fact about Ali, well-known to boxing insiders, was that he now hated to train. With his standing and all that he’d overcome and accomplished during the second rendition of his career 1970-77, he had become complacent. Moreover, the last remnants of Ali’s greatness as a fighter never boarded the plane with him when he left Manila to come back home to the United States after his third meeting with Joe Frazier. If ever there was a perfect time for Muhammad Ali to retire and go out at the height of his popularity, it was on the heels of his great performance in the “Thrilla in Manila.”
After Manila, Ali fought more so on guile and toughness than his once exceptional fighting ability. During his confrontations with Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman and Ron Lyle circa 1971-76, Muhammad found he had a concrete chin. Moreover, he had remarkable recuperative ability, allowing him to take a massive shot from the biggest punchers of the era. Ali didn’t believe anyone could knock him out or stop him, including Earnie Shavers who owned the highest KO percentage (.963) of any heavyweight fighter in history heading into their title bout. Realizing how dependable his chin was made Ali lazy in both the gym and during his final few bouts. Instead of training with the intent of overwhelming his opponents, beating them conclusively, he only pushed himself hard enough so he could come on later in the fight after his opponent was spent from trying to knock him out. And that played to the Shavers narrative perfectly because Earnie was known for having terrible stamina.
In the days leading up to the fight Ali nicknamed Shavers the “The Acorn” due to his bald head; it made him look more menacing. At the weigh-in the morning of the fight Ali scaled 225 and Shavers, looking very fit, a quarter pound over 211. On the night of the bout Madison Square Garden was packed and Ali made Shavers wait a little while before leaving his dressing room with his entourage with the “Star Wars” theme playing on the loud speaker. During the pre-fight instructions at center ring the Ali show was about to begin. Muhammad began to mock Shavers’ bald head as he talked to him, rubbing his head in an effort to break Earnie’s concentration and shake his confidence. But Shavers, who had waited eight years for his title shot, was too determined to be undone by Ali’s antics.
From the onset of the fight Ali talked to Shavers. Those sitting ringside and watching on TV could decipher Ali saying “You ain’t got nothing,” followed up a few seconds later with “I’m playing with you” and “You’ll soon be tired” as Shavers patiently stalked him around the ring. Throughout his career Shavers scored most of his knockouts with his right hand, and in the second round he nailed Ali clean with a monster right hand shot that Muhammad either didn’t see coming or purposely made no attempt to avoid. Ali was visibly hurt by the punch, but his heart and will took over.
Ali waved Earnie to come and get him after being rocked, but Shavers thought Muhammad was conning him and fearing he’d punch himself out, continued at a measured pace. For the next 10 rounds Ali circled and jabbed, stopping a few times along the way to plant his feet and flurry at Shavers, scoring with two and three punch combinations. A few times Shavers got in some big counter shots, but Ali took them well. During the course of the fight Ali sometimes went to the ropes, inviting Shavers to come at him with the intent of forcing Earnie to unload — hoping he’d punch himself out — but again Shavers wouldn’t take the bait.
Although he was clearly leading, Ali changed his tactics during the last third of the fight and started letting his hands go more freely with serious intentions. And that’s what Earnie needed, because with Ali engaging more, there were openings for Shavers to nail him harder and more frequently, which he did. The 13th and 14th were Shavers two best rounds. He shook Ali a few times during those rounds and instead of fighting back Muhammad picked his spots and then covered up. Ali tried to con Shavers into thinking he wasn’t hurt, but he was. When the bell rang ending the 14th round, Ali stumbled across the ring going back to his corner and never looked more spent.
Both fighters came out looking to have a big 15th round. Shavers knew he probably needed a knockout to win, but Ali, showing the heart of a champion, wasn’t about to let Shavers finish stronger. Ali held his ground and fought Shavers, leaving himself vulnerable to Earnie’s massive hooks and right hands.
With Ali and Shavers fighting toe-to-toe and time running out, Shavers followed Ali into a corner and was nailed by a short left hook high on the head that stopped him in his tracks. Ali opened up and began unloading on Shavers, only to be hurt by a desperation left hook by Shavers that forced him into another corner on the other side of the ring. The referee separated them and when they resumed fighting, Ali looked invigorated and his now quicker hands were finding the mark with uppercuts and short hooks that had Earnie reeling. During the final 20 seconds, Ali punched Shavers all over the ring. Shavers was close to going down when the bell sounded to end the fight.
Showing the last gasp of greatness we’d ever see from him , Ali finished the round like the great champion that all had come to know. Shavers put up a good fight but probably should’ve gone for broke earlier instead of pacing himself so much. There’s a good chance he would have tired and been stopped, but he would have given himself a better chance to win.
Ali won a unanimous decision by the scores of 9-5-1, 9-6 and 9-6 on a rounds basis, as fights in New York were scored back then. Over the years some have claimed that Ali was awarded a gift decision, but he clearly won the fight. The naysayers fail to mention that the Associated Press correspondent scored it 10-5 for Ali and the UPI writer had Ali winning 8-6-1. However, Ali took a lot of hard punches and afterward was urged to retire by his personal physician, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco. Of course Ali didn’t listen because being “Muhammad Ali” was too intoxicating and fun.
Over the last 40 years since Ali’s last great moment as champion, many things have changed in boxing. There are no more 15-round championship fights, they’re now 12 rounds, and the weigh-ins are held the afternoon before the night of the bout. Today heavyweights wear 10-ounce gloves instead of eight ounces like the ones Ali wore for all of his title bouts. And the recognized heavyweight champion, Anthony Joshua, weighed 25 pounds more in his last bout than Ali did on the night he fought Shavers. .
Since Ali’s final title defense, Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis are the greatest fighters to hold the title. Joshua has the physicality of Lewis fighting in an era much like the era of Holmes, one in which he appears to be the only outstanding or near-great in the division. Hopefully with the right fights and challengers down the road, Joshua can ignite interest in the division like Ali once did — something that only Mike Tyson was able to accomplish, that coming during a 2-3 year span that felt more like a minute.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com
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