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A close shave with Earnie

Running into Earnie Shavers on the Wirral is like finding Bob Latchford living in Buffalo Crotch
REMEMBER Earnie Shavers? He was a formidable heavyweight boxer who deserves to be remembered for more than not being able to spell Ernie. He was one of the most ferocious punchers of the 1970s, and there is a nice story about him fighting another decent heavyweight, Tiger Williams, in Las Vegas in 1976. Shavers hit Williams with a sledgehammer right, then turned and strolled back to his corner. His trainer went bonkers. "Earnie, what the hell ya doin'? Williams hasn't fallen." "He will," grunted Earnie. And he did.

Shavers had two cracks at the world title, against Muhammed Ali and Larry Holmes. Ali defeated him on points, at Madison Square Garden in September 1977. Holmes stopped him in the 11th round, at Caesar's Palace two years later. Shavers retired, for the umpteenth and final time, in 1995.

He was born in Alabama, raised in Ohio, one of 10 children from a desperately poor family. But he punched his way out of poverty, collecting a then- handsome $325,000 purse for fighting Larry Holmes, and wisely invested his earnings - or, in his case, ernings. He is now a wealthy man and, with delicious improbability, lives with his English girlfriend just outside Wallasey, on the Wirral. Isn't that great? The Wirral is where former Liverpool and Everton players run mock Tudor pubs. Running into Earnie Shavers there is like finding Ian Callaghan or Bob Latchford living in Buffalo Crotch, Arkansas.

Last Thursday, at the Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards at The Dorchester Hotel, London, Shavers accepted a lifetime achievement gong on behalf of his old adversary, Ali. I asked him what he remembered of the fight. "I had him hurt, I just know I had him hurt," said Shavers. "But Ali was so cunning. He always faked like he was hurt, so you were never really sure. Larry Holmes, who I fought twice, had the best jab ever. But Ali was the greatest there's ever been. And a nice man, too. We're still friends, and even though his speech is slurred, his mind is real sharp. I run into him about four times a year." Not while browsing around Birkenhead market, surely? "No, in the States."

I ran into Ali myself last week, or at any rate a wonderful image of him, at the opening of a small but perfectly formed exhibition of sports photography at the Collyer-Bristow Gallery in central London (viewing by appointment, 0171-242 7363). The photograph was taken in 1975, as a rather out-of-shape Ali prepared for a charity fight - an oxymoron, some would say - in Detroit, Michigan. Anyway, the photographer was a chap called James Fox, now editor-in-chief of the famous Magnum agency. He has been photographing boxers and fight spectators for nearly 30 years. "I consider it," he told me, "the perfect microcosm of society. You have violence, profit and entertainment, side by side."

Fox spent a lot of time with Ali and his entourage, which included Don King in his marginally better hair days. "I always felt slightly uncomfortable, as if I took one wrong step I would end up at the bottom of an elevator shaft. But it was an incredible experience."

He remembers being just about the only white person present in Detroit that night. The black anthem was played before the fight, which was staged to raise money for a black university. Most of the punters were wearing pink or yellow tuxedos. "There was," added Fox, "a religious cult around Ali. Pure and simple. People presented babies to him, pregnant women asked him to touch their bellies. I was with him in New York, and he would literally hold court in his hotel suite. He would sit there, and give audiences to people who wanted his help to open a new hospital wing, or because they had invented a new shampoo."

This notion of the sporting hero as a latter-day messiah is underlined by another of the images at the exhibition, a 1971 photograph by Steve Hale (above), in which Bill Shankly stands with his arms outstretched - his suit, as always, half a size too small - basking unsmilingly in the adulation of thousands of Liverpool fans. Shankly's po-faced expression adds to his messianic stature, as if there were nothing unusual for an ex-miner from Ayrshire to be worshipped by a vast crowd of Scousers.

Shankly, however, had his own hero, and coincidentally it was another Scottish ex-miner, whose historic achievements as a football manager have been respectfully remembered over the past week or so - Matt Busby. Ray Wood, the Manchester United goalkeeper injured in the Munich air crash, was later transferred to Shankly's Huddersfield Town, and one day walked into the home dressing-room to find Shankly gazing into a mirror as he tried on a trilby, tilting it this way and that. "Come here, son," growled Shankly. "Do you think I look like Matt?"