Shavers has no doubts about his own punching ability. "I'm a natural puncher and can take out any opponent." In an April fight he speared Howard Smith with a straight right that sent Smith back into the ropes before he dropped face first to the canvas. "Most of the time it is a right uppercut, left hand, that does the damage," he says. "Sometimes I can feel the flesh separating from the bone."
This ability to disintegrate folks seems to come from his enormous back and shoulders which seem much too big for Shavers' frame. He claims the muscular development comes from chopping cotton as a preschooler in Garland, Ala. before his family moved north. He insists that he can remember a plantation master named Mister Gilmore, who was 8' tall and slightly less loving than Simon Legree. The title of his autobiography, says Shavers, will be something like "Mister Gilmore's Boy Goes North and Makes It Big." He drills home an imaginary hard blow to punctuate it.
Still, preoccupation with the big punch has at times been Shavers' undoing. "I was loading up with every blow and the tension worked against me," he says. In 1975 Shavers had Lyle down for the first time in his career, a short hook in the second round having dropped him for the count of nine. Shavers' camp claims the count was more like 29, because the referee followed Shavers to a neutral corner and didn't resume the count until he had paced back and forth a few times. "We had a priest with us, a proper guy, who got so excited that he jumped up and yelled, 'Son of a bitch, they're robbing us!' " Gennaro says. "After that it's a two-minute rest between rounds. It was awful, but we fought in Denver, Lyle's town, and he doesn't lose there."
Left unsaid was the fact that Shavers was then stopped by Lyle in the sixth round. The midpoint in his fights has been a critical juncture for Shavers in the past. Jimmy Jacobs, the fight-film collector, calls Shavers the most dangerous fighter in the game—for 15 minutes.
Shavers insists he is a new man. No longer does he load up on every punch, growing arm-weary and desperate by the sixth round. "I've learned to relax, to shift my weight and pivot. Six inches is all I need to end the fight," he says.
From the evidence, Shavers has indeed improved as the stakes escalate; for $100,000 he is a more motivated fighter than he was for $50,000. In a bout last year with Roy Williams, a 6'4", hands-up, difficult-to-hit opponent, Shavers began to get the old sinking feeling in the 10th round. Luca, recognizing the symptoms, ran around the ring shouting, "Think of your five girls! Think of their future! Think of what you're doing! Think of the money!" That did it. Shavers straightened up, got down to business and knocked out Williams—which led to the $300,000 purse for the Ali fight.
At 33, Shavers not only aspires to Ali's title, but he also hopes to succeed him as the world's greatest consumer. Gennaro and Luca encourage his dreams, and Gennaro, the 10th child in a poor family of 17, understands such passion. Shavers could not have a better example: Gennaro owns two fire engines as toys, plus a cream and brown 1964 Rolls-Royce.
Shavers also owns a Rolls, a burgundy Silver Cloud bearing Ohio license RD1. He would like to have a home swimming pool in the shape of a boxing glove. The challenger feels he doesn't have much time to indulge high-priced interests; he does not really like boxing. In a precise paraphrase of Sonny Liston he says, "A man has to be crazy to enjoy getting hit on the side of the head." His aversion to the profession is the best of all incentives. Shavers' idea is to win the title, hold it for three fights, 18 months or thereabouts, and run off with all the millions.
But is this likely to happen? Chances are remote. Ali gives nothing away, his title included, and the officials, especially in New York, are unwilling to hand it over. Shavers has the puncher's one chance, the ability to separate a man from his senses. Unfortunately, he is picking on the wrong man. It is only the Ali punch that has mysteriously failed; his chin—and the moves that keep it relatively unendangered—is the best in boxing. That and history are on Ali's side; he has experienced his finest moments against the heavy hitters: Liston, Cleveland Williams, George Foreman.
Still, Luca maintains, "It happens to everyone, even the greatest must come to an end. Are you listening, Muhammad? We're going to stop the world and let you off. We're going to retire you from boxing."