THE PREACHER : Earnie Shavers, Former Knockout Puncher, Now Knockout Evangelist

Times Staff Writer

Opponents of heavyweight Earnie Shavers long suspected that the shiny-headed fighter with shoulders as wide as Rhode Island had grasped the Bible. Few, however, believed that he would ever read the Bible. Most of them figured he just tucked the Old Testament inside his right glove and was using it to wack them alongside the head.

With his power, there must have been something in there other than a hand, they assumed.

In his 72 professional victories, Shavers knocked out 67 opponents. His knockouts-per-win ratio of .931 ranks him as the second-greatest knockout puncher in heavyweight history, greater than Mike Tyson and exceeded only by the slightly tainted .951 KO percentage of 40-year-old George Foreman, who has, during his recent comeback, stopped 17 consecutive fighters who could do little more than fog a mirror.

The punch he used to knock out Jimmy Ellis in the first round in 1973 was so hard that Ellis’ manager later claimed that it had caused his fighter’s shoelaces to come untied.


Earlier this week, Shavers, 44, climbed the steps once again to put himself on the stage. And once again, the gathering gave him a raucous welcome, pounding their hands together and stomping their feet as the bright, glaring fluorescent lights sparkled off the slick, hairless head of Shavers, who was preparing for another fight.

This time, though, Shavers was not about to trade punches with Muhammad Ali or Larry Holmes. This was much bigger than those two championship fights.

This time, in a church that had recently been an appliance warehouse in Sun Valley, Shavers was going to try to land one of those frightening, crushing overhand rights on the chin of the devil.

Billed as “the Knockout Evangelist,” Shavers, who brought down so much hell upon so many opponents, tries to bring heaven down upon people. He said it was three years ago that he first heard the call of God, but it wasn’t until last December, after a sermon he delivered to a group of senior citizens in Providence, Ky., that he really believed.

“I hurt my shoulder in the fight with Larry Holmes in 1979,” said Shavers, who retired from boxing in 1983, though he made a one-fight comeback attempt in 1987 before quitting for good. “It had bothered me every day since. Tremendous pain. But that night, after talking to those people in Kentucky, as I lay in my hotel bed, God came down and touched me. He touched my shoulder. And the pain was gone and I haven’t felt even a twinge all the days since.”

That is what brought Shavers to the Praise Chapel, a nondenominational church, to speak this week. He had dozens of business cards that feature a boxing glove and the words, “God’s way is a sure way. If we follow it, we won’t fail.” And by the time it was over, he had the congregation of more than 300 rising to their feet, screaming and chanting praise of his message.

The service was preceded by a greeting line in which Shavers warmly welcomed each member of the congregation.

Shavers wrapped his grizzly-bear arms around a short, thin, middle-aged man, nearly yanking the man out of his loafers with an exuberant embrace.

“Praise God,” Shavers told the man.

“Praise God,” the man responded. And then he bent over to retrieve his car keys, which had been knocked from his right hand by the power of the hug.

The ceremony began with a rock band blaring and Shavers leading the throng in song, holding his giant hands aloft as he belted out the lyrics to a song.

As he sang and the light reflected off his face, long scars above each eye told the tale of a man who didn’t always preach the Bible.

“It was not a beautiful sport that I made a career of,” Shavers said. “It was not a sport blessed by God. But when I was fighting, I had not been saved. I was lost. And in the years since, God has forgiven me for what I did. He knows I did not understand back then. But now I do.”

There were other things Shavers did not understand during his boxing days. He still does not, for example, understand how Holmes ever dragged himself off of the canvas that night of Sept. 28, 1979, at Caesars Palace after Shavers had caught him on the chin with a thundering punch. Many at ringside turned their heads at the sound. Holmes’ eyes closed and his head sagged.

A split-second later, he fell, toppling backward in a free-fall, his head making another tremendous thud as it crashed off the canvas. Shockingly, Shavers seemed about to become the undisputed heavyweight champion with this crushing defeat of an opponent who entered the ring as a solid 5-1 favorite. Shavers walked back to his corner and raised those massive arms to the sky. His celebration had begun.

But stunningly, at the referee’s count of seven, Holmes began to stir. By nine, he was on one knee and with a loud grunt he pushed himself upward, slumping heavily against the ropes, his eyes glazed and his legs still unsteady. But he was up, and in the opposite corner, Shavers looked, not believing, his mouth hanging open at the sight.

Holmes survived the final few seconds of that seventh round, regained his senses in the eighth and by the 11th was hammering Shavers mercilessly with his own crunching rights. The referee stopped the fight in the 11th. It was as close as Shavers would ever get to owning the heavyweight crown.

“That night, I just couldn’t believe that man got back up,” said Shavers, who finished his career with a 72-13-1 record. “That was as hard as I have ever hit a man. To this day, I still can’t quite believe that Larry Holmes got up.”

But, even though he still doesn’t believe it, Shavers said he is thankful Holmes got up. Shavers earned $300,000 for that fight, and with a victory his purses would have tripled.

“That would have been my ticket to hell,” Shavers said. “The devil himself was preparing to greet me. I already had a huge house and huge car and a lot of money and I know I was on the road down.

“Losing that fight and never winning the heavyweight championship was the best thing that ever happened to me. Of course, I didn’t quite see it that way at the time.”

Then his sermon reached a peak as he raised a worn, red-covered Bible overhead and told the congregation about God. His suit jacket, nearly coming apart at the seams, was all bunched up around his neck as he kept his arms raised.

His message was fire and brimstone, with splashes of Henny Youngman. Examples:

--"No matter how much money you have, no matter how big your house and how big your car and how much furniture you have, you can’t take it with you the day you die. I’ve never yet seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul.”

--"Our family was poor. How poor were we? Well, we were so poor that poor people called us poor.”

As the congregation roared with laughter at his occasional joke, Shavers would lift one of his hands and slowly rub it across his sparkling head, the one that caused Ali to nickname Shavers “The Acorn” before their 1977 fight.

In that bout, Shavers dropped bombs on Ali for five rounds, rocking the three-time heavyweight champion badly several times. But Ali never went down. And slowly, he wore Shavers down, winning a unanimous, 15-round decision. That was Shavers’ first title fight.

“When I started boxing as an amateur at the age of 22,” Shavers said, “there were seven of us who went to the gym together. They were all into cocaine and alcohol. Today, three of those guys are dead, two are in prison and one is an alcoholic back in Cleveland. And Earnie Shavers, the square who wouldn’t drink and take drugs, is standing here today a very proud man.

“If I had won the title against Larry or Ali, I believe I would have ended up just like one of those other six guys.”

Shavers said he speaks to church groups two or three times a day, six days a week, on the average. He said he was away from his Phoenix home 300 days last year.

At the end of Thursday night’s ceremony at the Praise Chapel, another line formed to bid Shavers goodby. More than 100 worshipers shook hands with Shavers. Many got his autograph. And nearly all talked briefly about God and the Bible.

The last man in line, Rick Johnston, 25, of Burbank, was helped onto the altar. Johnston is blind. As he got to Shavers, the former fighter rose from his seat and embraced him. And Johnston had just one request.

“Can I feel that right arm?” he asked, an outstretched hand trying first to find Shavers’ right hand, the one that so many other men had tried desperately to stay away from.

Shavers stood quietly as Johnston wrapped both hands--barely--around Shavers’ right biceps and squeezed.

Amen , Earnie,” an awed Johnston said loudly.

Shavers, The Knockout Evangelist, tipped his head back and laughed mightily.

“I want to be The Preacher, but I guess I’ll always be The Puncher,” he said.