Ali-mania is about to engulf us again. Will Smith's portrayal of the life and times of the former world heavyweight champion, which had its premiere in London last week, will be released to coincide with The Greatest's 60th birthday in the New Year. More immediately, and rather more realistically, a new video documentary about his most memorable fights is now available and the accompanying nostalgia is as heavy as the blows rained upon him by the one opponent he respected almost above all others.
It was in September 1977, at Madison Square Garden, that Earnie Shavers had the then 35-year-old Ali on the ropes in the second round of their title fight. It was a brutal, epic battle and one, that in the opinion of many of the game's cognoscenti, wreaked most of the debilitating damage that was to bring Ali's career to its poignant conclusion five fights and four years later in the Bahamas.
"The champion is hurt! Ali is in trouble!" screams the television commentator, the late Howard Cosell. "I backed off," Shavers now ruefully admits. "The trouble was I liked Ali too much. I knew I had to hurt him, but I didn't want to. I wanted to win, but I didn't want to win, if you know what I mean.
"I'll never forget that punch I threw in the second round, a right to the chin over the top of his jab. Boom! It really hurt him but he just stared back and said 'Show me something, Earnie'. I knew then I was in for a long night. Ali was so cunning, he knew all the tricks, and at the end of the 15 rounds I thought I'd won but looking at the video, I realise he was ahead on points. Oh yeah, he was the king."
Ali said later that Shavers had hit him so hard "It shook my kinfolk back in Africa" and the awful legacy of that fight was that it left him with kidney failure, passing blood for days afterwards. A subsequent scan showed the first signs for the torn tissue on the brain that became exacerbated by Parkinson's Syndrome. It was after this fight that Ali's personal physician, Dr Ferdie Pacheco left him when the ageing, now vulnerable champion, insisted on needlessly prolonging his career.
These days Shavers is the resident heavyweight celebrity on the Wirral, in Cheshire, having married an Englishwoman – the aunt of former light-heavyweight boxer Kenny Rainford, a long-time fan – working the after-dinner speech circuit and three nights a week meeting and greeting customers at Yates's Wine Lodge in Liverpool. He's never had trouble from the punters.
Well he wouldn't, would he? Not only is he regarded as the best heavyweight never to win the world championship but has been officially voted the hardest puncher of the 20th century. "The best one-punch fighter I ever saw", says Bert Sugar, proprietor and editor of Boxing Illustrated. "He hit Tex Cobb so hard his head spun around like Michael Keaton's in Beetlejuice".
As it happens. Shavers, now 56, and his old mate Muhammad have much in common. Both had reason to be racist, but aren't, the five-year-old Shavers and his sharecropper family being chased out of Alabama by a 20-strong Ku Klux Klan lynch mob. "Believe me, when the Klan come after you, you don't forget it, but I always remember my mother telling me, 'We got white and black in this world, good and bad in both races. We all belong to God. Love everybody.' And you know what, they actually did me a favour, I would have never gone to Ohio, and would never have ended up in the fight game."
Like Ali, too, he never drank, smoked or did drugs, but boy, did they love the ladies. Both have nine children. "But I think I've had one more wife than him." [Actually it is two]. His sixth, Sue, will be his last, he assures us. "I'm done romancin'. Can't afford no more!"
Big Earnie – although not so big by today's heavyweight standards as a mere six-footer – fought for almost two decades on and off, winning 74 of 88 fights, 67 of them by knockouts, felling them like a lumberjack.
Joe Frazier and George Foreman were among those who avoided him, and Mike Tyson's people turned a deaf ear when Shavers volunteered a comeback to fight him six years ago. "They knew I'm not afraid of him, and anyone who ain't scared can beat him. Lennox Lewis should remember that."
Shavers, who still trains every day, twice battled unsuccessfully for the world title, first with Ali and, at 35, against Larry Holmes, knocking the champion down and almost senseless in the seventh round. Holmes reckoned the punch was like a photographer's flash bulb going off his head but hitting the canvas revived him. "For seven seconds I was champion of the world," says Shavers. "I couldn't believe it when he got up. I thought Lord, gimme a gun."
Much more will be revealed, says Shavers in his autobiography (Welcome To The Big Time) to be published next year. He says the proceeds will go to underprivileged children. "And I have nine of them."
Inevitably, the Ali fight will feature prominently. "Although I lost, it opened so many doors for me. And that's one of the many reasons I love the guy. I was friends with Ali for about three years before we fought, and we're often in touch now. One of the things he taught me was how to deal with people. He said, 'Remember this Earnie, when you work with the public, always sign their autographs, always have some nice things to say. Give. Entertain. And always stay 'til the last one goes.' "
The documentary 'Muhammad Ali – Through the Eyes of the World' is available now on video from Universal (£14.99). An accompanying book is also available from bookshops).