A couple of weeks ago, a friend from back east told me he was at the Boulevard Mall when he bumped into Earnie Shavers, the former heavyweight contender, which is the sort of thing that often happens in Las Vegas, but usually closer to the Strip.
The Acorn – what Ali called him, owing to Shavers’ bald pate – was signing autographs for a fee. Business was less than brisk. It seemed a bit melancholy to my pal from back east who, like me, had seen Shavers fight when all of us were young, had seen him give Ali what for – and then some – over 15 grueling rounds on Sept. 29, 1977, at Madison Square Garden. A lot of people thought Shavers won that fight.
Now, 35 years later, a lot of people at the mall walked right past Earnie Shavers on the way to Orange Julius. My friend thought that might make a good story. Or at least a melancholy one. So he picked up the business card of Earnie’s guy in case I was interested.
Earnie’s guy said he would be signing autographs on Friday at a sports memorabilia shop at the airport, but that it might not be a good idea to talk to Earnie there because it would distract from him signing autographs and interacting with boxing fans. Would I be willing to meet for breakfast?
And so I’m sitting at Bagelmania near Twain and Swenson with a couple of grizzled boxing types, when The Acorn wedges his wide shoulders through the door, and, I’m happy to report, he looks darn good for a man of 68 who went 15 grueling rounds with Ali and fought Ken Norton and Jimmy Young and Jimmy Ellis and Ron Lyle and Jerry Quarry and Tex Cobb and Joe Bugner and Quick Tillis.
And Larry Holmes. Twice.
Fought them all in that era, that great era for heavyweights. Except for Frazier. Smokin’ Joe didn’t want anything to do with Shavers’ thunderous right hand that could drop a wildebeest during the rainy season.
So Earnie Shavers sits down directly across from me, and it’s like he’s sitting on his stool between rounds, he casts such a presence. And just as I’m about to tell him to go to the body, that he can whup this guy, who should come barging through the door but Roberto Freakin’ Duran, and his wife. And Duran, who is 61, looks great, too – way better than he looked when I covered his third fight against Ray Leonard at The Mirage in ’89.
Hands of Stone. Right there! (As Howard Cosell might have put it.)
It was me and Gene Kilroy, who was Ali’s pal, and then the great Roberto Duran, 103 wins, 16 losses, fought in five divisions, until he was 50, won world championships in four.
I wanted to ask about all of that stuff, or any of it, but by then Earnie Shavers is telling me that of all the great heavyweights of That Era, only he and Holmes are healthy, at least relatively so, and that Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson told him that if he were nice to people, people would be nice to him, and it would open doors.
And so I’m torn between bobbing and weaving, ’cause all of a sudden Duran is gesturing wildly and explaining to the table how the Panama Canal works. But he’s explaining it in broken English, so as far as I can make out, he either swam in the canal when he was a kid, or he steered one of those big cargo ships right through the locks. When Duran starts telling stories, sometimes it’s hard to tell.
So his wife, noticing the look of utter amazement and incredulity tattooed onto my face, Mike Tyson-style, takes my notebook and begins to write.
“Felicidad Duran. Wife. Have 6 Kids. 40 years married with R. Duran.”
And then her husband of 40 years is talking about his restaurant in Panama.
“Special Horrillan fish and paella,” she writes after taking my notebook again. “Pedasi. 4 hours from Panama City.”
Somebody asks Duran what else he’s working on, and he says he sings and has a couple of CDs – and there’s also a movie coming out about him next year, and DeNiro’s gonna be in it, and maybe Pacino, too. And then he’s talking in Spanish again, and then Felicidad Duran takes back my notebook again.
“Los Duran. Reality Show,” she writes.
The waitress brings Earnie Shavers his usual breakfast – eight slices of crisp bacon on one plate, about a half loaf of wheat toast on another.
Shavers, who is a sweet man, tells me he doesn’t drink and he doesn’t smoke, but that he sure does love his bacon.
Just about the time I’m expecting Federico Fellini to barge through the door with his camera, Kilroy has Hands of Stone and The Acorn autograph bright red boxing gloves. These will cost $49 (for Shavers’) and $99 (for Duran’s) at the airport in a little while, but the fighters (or Kilroy) insist I have them.
“To Ron, Roberto Duran.” Short and to the point. Like a right cross to the chin.
Shavers puts a bit more thought into it. Or appears to be writing more. “To Ron. All the best. Your friend, Earnie Shavers.” And then he dated it, 9-7-12. So that when I’m telling this story (which I plan to do again and again), perhaps somebody might believe it.
On the way to the airport, I notice a billboard that says Chumlee from “Pawn Stars” will be making an appearance at some nightclub.
When we arrive, there’s a handwritten advisory on a sheet of copy paper that says the great Roberto Duran will be appearing today, along with Earnie Shavers with the thunderous right hand.
And to me, this seems wrong, totally wrong, because Chumlee doesn’t have hands of stone and he didn’t fight Ali and he didn’t fight Larry Holmes twice. (Although Joe Frazier, before he died recently, might have tried to avoid him.)
I spent nearly two hours with the boxing legends. Neither one laid a $49 glove or a $99 glove on those who stopped to say hello. One guy bought a DVD of Earnie Shavers’ greatest hits, for $29.95. Earnie signed it. He wrote they were friends. Peace.
A young guy and his significant other, both sporting multiple tattoos, asked if I would snap their photo in front of a cardboard cutout of Chuck Liddell, the UFC fighter.
Didn’t they want to go inside? Roberto Duran and Earnie Shavers are inside, I said, signing autographs. Hands of Stone. And The Acorn. The guy with the shaved head who gave Ali what for over 15 grueling rounds at The Garden.
The young guy and his girl looked at me the way I had looked at Duran when he was explaining how the Panama Canal works.
They walked right past the table where Hands of Stone and The Acorn were throwing phantom punches like Rocky Balboa in the movies, hoping that somebody remembered, hoping that $19.95 for a signed 8×10 wasn’t too much to ask for those memories.
But the young guy and his girl were headed for ground transportation, and it seems they were running late.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.