Jonathan Rendall meets Earnie Shavers: 'Our rendezvous was a cheap Chinese restaurant...'

Jonathan Rendall, the award-winning journalist who died last month aged 48, was one of the greats of ‘Independent’ sportswriting.  He was a key figure in the early years of ‘The Independent on Sunday’, gracing the pages of both titles throughout the 1990s and 2000s. He specialised in boxing, bringing to life its characters with a Runyonesque vividness. In a tribute to his life and work, we here reprint one of his best pieces, an encounter from 2003 with the American ex-heavyweight boxer Earnie Shavers, whom Rendall tracked down in the unlikely setting of a Chinese restaurant in Liverpool

Steve is a 70-year-old boxing promoter in Phoenix, Arizona, who has had a lifelong fascination with gangsters. Though Ivy-League educated and actually very respectable, Steve has made it his business to know everything about almost every gangster in the south-western United States, mainly through his hobby of putting on boxing and wrestling shows. He even dresses like one: tight black jeans, capped-black T-shirt, mirror shades and hair dyed jet black so many times it looks like a rug, even though it’s real.

Steve is a very good one-liner merchant. Of the late and legendary Phoenix mafioso, Paul Kleinite, he once told me: “Kleinite thought ‘illegal’ was a sick bird.”

The last time I rang Steve it was to tell him I was going to meet Earnie “The Acorn” Shavers, who was now living in Liverpool. With Steve’s contacts, he always has some additional info. Shavers, who was born into a share- cropping family in Alabama, is widely regarded as the hardest-punching heavyweight of the 20th century, albeit one of relatively limited boxing skills. He was dubbed “The Acorn” by Muhammad Ali, because of his bald pate. After Ali fought Shavers, he said: “Earnie hit so hard he shook my kin folk back in Africa.”

Shavers, I told Steve, was now a wealthy man, worth – I had been told – between $1m and $2m. His rather bizarre emigration had occurred because of an invitation by the Earnie Shavers Fan Club four years ago to speak in Liverpool. The Earnie Shavers Fan Club had been formed by a young Scouse boxer, Kenny Rainford. On the night of the engagement, Shavers had met and fallen in love with Rainford’s aunt, an attractive woman named Sue Clegg. Since then, he had moved into her bungalow in Doreen Avenue in Birkenhead – a stop-gap measure until Shavers’ investments matured when he reaches the age of 60, in two years’ time. “Know anything?” I asked Steve.

“Excuse me,” Steve said. “But if Shavers ever saw $2m you’d see him in a cardiac arrest unit.” By coincidence, Shavers had been in the Phoenix area shortly before leaving for England. “He was borrowing money off me and another guy, a Finnish wrestler called Pavo Katonen. He had nothing. Postage stamps were long-term savings plans.” I asked Steve if he could be sure. “Hey, maybe he won the lottery. Maybe he didn’t block as many punches as he thinks he did.”

The next day I got on a train at Euston: our rendezvous was behind Lime Street station at a cheap Chinese restaurant. Shavers came in wearing a dapper suit. “Barrel” would not do justice to his chest. Rainford was with him – a friendly, diffident man in his 30s. Shavers could not have weighed much more than his old fighting weight of 15st. He had the spryness of a younger man, giving half skips and shuffles as he walked towards the table. He handed me some publicity material for an autobiography he was publishing himself, entitled Welcome To The Big Times, and a signed photo reading: “To Jon, All the best always. Earnie Shavers. Peace.” He informed me that after the book was over he was going to marry Sue Clegg: “Then Kenny’s got to call me uncle and Sue’ll have all the money out of my will.”

Shavers reeled off some anecdotes. Rainford listened avidly, even though he must have heard the stories before. Rainford clearly idolised him. Looking into Shavers’ eyes it was still difficult to know what he was really thinking: he had considerable charm underlaid with a certain detached alertness. There was a slight slur to his voice, but such is not uncommon among boxers of his experience – 73 wins from 88 fights, with 67 knockout victories –often denoting neither drunkenness nor brain damage, but nasal impairment from receiving incessant jabs.

I asked him about the book’s title and he told me the story of his fight with Jeff Sims, a touted contender he once defeated. “I beat Sims at the weigh-in. I asked him where his white trainer was. I said: You’re just one of his niggers. I knew how to push a black man’s buttons to get instant rapport. At the opening bell I grabbed him in a clinch and said, Slow down, Jeff. We got 10 rounds to go, brother. The next round I saw my opening and sent him down for the 10 count. Afterwards he said, Mr Shavers, you lied to me about the 10 rounds,’ and I threw my arms open and said, Jeff, welcome to the big times!’”

Shavers said the best he had fought was not Ali but Larry Holmes. “Holmes beat the shit out of me. He wasn’t petrified like the other guys.” The Mob took half his purses, he said. “You know what the family is? They all liked me.” He didn’t mind because, he said, he made his money later, by trading on his name, and when it came through he was going to buy homes for himself and Sue Clegg in “Nassau in the Bahamas, San Diego and Palm Springs”. Shavers ate his chicken and rice elegantly, with the carefree air of someone humming.

I paid the bill. As we left, Shavers paused to cover the waiter’s hand with his own. I couldn’t see what was in it. We drove to see Rainford’s gym. It seemed more like a store-room: there were a couple of heavy bags and some stacked furniture. Rainford and I watched while Shavers skipped around a heavy bag in his suit. Remembering what Steve had said, I asked Rainford if it was true about the Shavers millions. “Oh yeah,” Rainford said. “I mean, I’ve lent him money, but that’s to protect the investments. If he took the money out now, it’d cost him fortunes.”

In Birkenhead, to drop Shavers off at Doreen Avenue, we passed a  yellowing poster for the Ali film starring Will Smith. I asked Shavers if he had seen it and for a moment he dropped his up-beat demeanour. “Lies,” he said. What part of it was lies?, I persevered, as he awkwardly manoeuvred his great frame out of the car. “All of it,” Shavers said.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system