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The end of last Friday night's WBC heavyweight-title fight in Las Vegas came not two minutes into the 11th round, when Davey Pearl, the referee, stepped between tottering, defenseless Earnie Shavers and champion Larry Holmes. No, the bout was really over at the close of the seventh, when Shavers, who had been taking a licking, unleashed one of his monumental overhand rights—and hammered Holmes backward onto the canvas at Caesars Palace.
This was the unbeaten Holmes' fourth defense of his title, and at that moment it looked like there might never be a fifth. When Shavers unloads—and connects—the hittee seldom rises. This was Shavers' 66th professional fight and he had won 56 of them by rendering folks senseless. Most heavyweights would rather fight the First Marine Division.
But as Holmes has proved before, he isn't like other heavyweights. Although his eyes were glazed by the thunderous punch, he made it to his feet by the count of five. And, as Pearl tolled on to the end of the mandatory eight, the champ began to jump up and down.
"An ordinary fighter would have stood there dazed and helpless, waiting to be knocked down again," Pearl said later, "but as stunned as he must have been, he reacted the way a smart, seasoned fighter should. The jumping up and down cleared away the cobwebs."
And even as he was regaining his feet, Holmes was regaining his senses. He knew there was no rule that he had to stay near Pearl during the remainder of the eight count. And so, as the jumping tactic cleared his head, it also took him away from the referee—and farther away from where Shavers waited in a neutral corner, thereby gaining him another precious second or two.
Pearl finished his count with 22 seconds left in the round and waved Shavers forward, thinking as he did so that he might be going home early.
Shavers moved in, unloading wild right hands. Holmes grabbed for him and held on. They were broken; Holmes grabbed again. They were broken; Holmes grabbed. The bell rang. The round was over. In effect, the fight was over.
As recently as the afternoon of March 23 the suggestion that Shavers would ever fight Holmes for the title would have been ludicrous. But that evening Shavers knocked out Kenny Norton, the ex-champion. And three months later Holmes very nearly lost to unheralded Mike Weaver.
"All of a sudden everybody started to remember Shavers' big punch, and they began thinking that Larry was no longer indestructible," Richie Giachetti, Larry Holmes' trainer and manager, said. "Well, Larry has never been indestructible. But he is as close as any human will ever get, because when he is hurt he comes back. That's why he is the champion and everybody else is a challenger."
Disgusted with himself over his poor showing against Weaver, Holmes trained for Shavers as hard as he has for anyone. On March 25, 1978 he had fought Shavers in a non-title bout and won all 12 rounds. Now he trained as though Shavers had won the fight. "And I'm not reading any newspapers until after the fight," Holmes said. "They told me Mike Weaver was a lousy fighter. Don't tell me about Earnie Shavers. I don't want to hear it."