ON THIS DAY in 1977, an ageing but still universally revered Muhammad Ali was coming towards the end of a long and glorious career. Then aged 35 and largely winning fights through his cunning and with a little help from admiring judges in charge of scoring his fights, Ali had squeaked past the likes of Ken Norton and Jimmy Young, but now, at Madison Square Garden, he was facing a monster puncher in the form of the incredibly heavy-handed Earnie Shavers.
Ali knew he’d be in for a tough fight, asking a writer if he knew how tired he was and if the scribe had any idea how hard Shavers was going to hit him that night. His pre-fight dressing room concerns aside, Ali made yet another confident looking walk to the ring, accompanied by the theme music from “Star Wars.” Shavers, entering the ring with a formidable 54-5-1(53) ledger, would soon make Ali see stars.
Going into the fight, 32-year-old Shavers’ first crack at the world title, the feeling was the challenger would have to get Ali out of there early, such were Earnie’s perceived stamina shortcomings. Previously, Shavers had gone no further than the 10th round, and this on just five occasions. Ali on the other hand, had danced for the full 15 rounds a number of times. Still, at his current age, Ali could only turn on the dancing magic for limited periods. Shavers was the underdog, but some people felt he might pull off the win.
In the early going, the second round especially, it looked as though Ali might indeed fall. Shavers hit Ali so hard, one writer later wrote, it looked like Ali might be decapitated. Only “The Greatest’s” legendary chin kept him upright. Ali was also, somehow, able to keep his wits about him and con Earnie into thinking he was not as badly hurt as he really was. And Shavers, perhaps thinking he should not go all out lest he fail to get the KO and run out of gas in trying to end matters, let Ali off the hook.
Ali would have to take plenty of leather in the later rounds though, and this fight became a battle of attrition. Luckily for Ali, he had the exceptionally wise Angelo Dundee in his corner. Dundee had found out how NBC television would display the score of the fight after each round on the screen. So, Dundee had an assistant watch the fight on TV in the dressing room and then signal the scores to him at the conclusion of each round. Dundee knew that his man was winning and could therefore afford to take a round off to rest. Shavers’ team had missed this trick. After 12 rounds were completed, Dundee knew Ali could only lose by a stoppage.
The 15th and final round produced some memorable action, with Ali managing to suck it up and roll back the years with some fast punches. But Shavers had surprised many by pushing Ali so hard and for so long. Ali had really been tested, his chin again serving him well in the 13th round, when Shavers found his second (or third) wind and hurt the champion. But, once more, an Ali fight would be decided by the three official judges. Would Ali hold onto the crown?
The scores were reasonably close but not as close as many observers had it – with Ali prevailing by margins of 9-6, 9-6 and 9-5 (with one of these tallies being handed in by Eva Shain, who that night in New York became the first ever female to score a world title fight). So Ali had escaped with his belt once again, but at what cost?
It was soon after this fight that Ali’s long-time doctor and friend Ferdie Pacheco quit his official role, stating how Ali’s kidneys were “falling apart.” The strain on Ali’s health had been too much for Pacheco, but Ali would fight on – on-and-off for another four years.
As for Shavers, though he hadn’t won, he had acquitted himself extremely well and further big fights would come; with “The Acorn,” as Ali had nicknamed the shaven headed slugger, getting a subsequent and memorable near miss of a world title shot against Larry Holmes two years later.
Ali had just one victory left inside his tired body; a revenge win over novice Leon Spinks.