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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.