Earnie Shavers, who was regarded as one of the hardest punchers in boxing history, but who failed in his two quests to capture a world heavyweight championship in the 1970s, died on Thursday in Virginia, a day after his 78th birthday.
The Associated Press said it had been informed of Shavers’s death, at the home of one of his daughters, by his close friend Kenny Rainford, a British former boxer. Rainford, whose aunt was married to Shavers for a decade, did not cite the cause but said that Shavers had “slowed down all of a sudden.”
Shavers won 74 bouts, 68 by knockouts, lost 14 and fought to one draw in a professional career that lasted from 1969 to 1995.
The boxing publication The Ring recently ranked Shavers as the seventh-greatest puncher of all time.
When the heavyweight division was in its glory, Shavers traded punches with the great names of his time. He lost on a unanimous decision in his September 1977 bid to capture Muhammad Ali’s World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council crowns. He was stopped on a technical knockout in the seventh round of his September 1979 bout with Larry Holmes, the W.B.C. titleholder.
Shavers, who weighed in at 211¼ pounds to Ali’s 225, was such an underdog that there was no betting line for their fight. His shaved head, uncommon at the time, was said to be intimidating, but Ali, unimpressed, nicknamed him “the Acorn.” In a 2016 interview on the cable television show “In This Corner,” Shavers laughingly recalled Ali’s attempt to rile him.
“He was a con man,” he said of Ali. “One of the best.”
Neither fighter scored a knockdown, but Shavers shook Ali several times with right-hand punches, his fiercest weapon. Both men were wobbling at the final bell in their 15-round bout at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“Ali and Shavers stood there, swinging as if they were John Wayne and Randolph Scott in a cowboy brawl, but neither surrendered to the shelling,” Dave Anderson wrote that year in The New York Times.
“I’m tired, almost as tired as I was in Manila,” Ali told reporters afterward, referring to his storied 14-round knockout of Joe Frazier two years earlier.
Sports Illustrated ran a cover photo of Shavers delivering an overhand right with the headline “Ali’s Desperate Hour.”
“I was a puncher from Day One,” Shavers said in 2016.
In his 1979 bid for Holmes’s titles in Las Vegas, Shavers floored Holmes in the seventh round with a powerful right hand. Holmes got up quickly but seemed on the brink of collapse.
However, just as Shavers had been unable to finish Ali off after delivering crushing blows, he could not conquer Holmes. His wild lunges allowed Holmes to get through the final 30 seconds of the round. The referee stopped the fight in the 11th round as Holmes was pummeling an exhausted Shavers.
Earnie Dee Shavers was born on Aug. 31, 1944, in Garland, Ala., but when he was young, his family moved to the Youngstown, Ohio, area. He turned professional after some two dozen amateur fights and after capturing a national Golden Gloves heavyweight title and a national Amateur Athletic Union heavyweight title. He began to rise in the professional heavyweight ranks after hiring Don King as his promoter.
As his career progressed, Shavers defeated the former world champions Vicente Rondón, Jimmy Ellis and Ken Norton, as well as the European champion Joe Bugner.
Shavers’s bout with Holmes was his last big fight. He underwent surgery for a detached retina afterward and had not fully recovered when he was stopped in the eighth round of a bout with Tex Cobb in August 1980.
He tried to make two brief comebacks, the first in 1987 and the second in 1995. He retired for good after being knocked out by Brian Yates in the second round of their fight in November 1995.
He went on to become an ordained Christian minister, but he also made appearances in Las Vegas in his later years, signing autographs at casinos.
According to The Associated Press, Shavers had five daughters with his first wife, Laverne Payne: Tamara, Cynthia, Catherine, Carla and Amy; he also had four daughters from other relationships: Catherine, Lisa, Natasha and Latonya.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
In 1992, Shavers released a video telling the story of his career. It was titled “Earnie D. Shavers, the Hardest One-Punch Hitter.”