- The Washington Times
Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fight Night, the annual boxing charity event that attracts the District’s deepest pockets for a night of Epicurean excess, went off Thursday night without the slightest evidence of poverty - the Dow Jones be damned.

There were women, wine and song, champagne and cigars and, of course, the signature of the night, the boxing legends generations of fight fans grew up watching.

That list included champions and former champions: Joe Frazier, Jake LaMotta, Buster Douglas, Earnie Shavers, Gerry Cooney, Michael Spinks, Ernie Terrell, Ray Mancini, Aaron Pryor and Ken Norton.

What was interesting about that list is that several of the boxers on it achieved legendary status because of fights they lost, not fights they won.

You won’t find that in any other sport. No one speaks with reverence about a Buffalo Bills team that lost four Super Bowls. No one remembers the World Series losers.

In boxing, though, a certain measure of respect is accorded for fighting and losing, often based on the status of the winner.

The list of legends is shrinking with each passing year. A boxer who lost when boxing was high on the American sports menu will have more status than who will pass for a legend, say, 10 years from now.

Let’s face it: If Ernie Terrell is a boxing legend, it is because of one thing - a 15-round loss to Muhammad Ali in 1967 on national television when everyone was watching Muhammad Ali.

Terrell, 69, was a top heavyweight in the 1960s, beating such fighters as Doug Jones, Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley. He became World Boxing Association champion in 1964 when Ali was stripped of that version of the title. Terrell won the vacant belt by defeating Eddie Machen.

But no one seriously considered Terrell the champion. Ali held the World Boxing Council title and was recognized as the heavyweight champion.

They met in the ring in 1967 amid some real bad blood - Terrell had insisted on calling Ali by his birth name, Cassius Clay, before the fight. So Ali put a brutal beating on Terrell over 15 rounds, screaming at Terrell, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom?”

That is why we remember Ernie Terrell. That is what makes him a legend. A loss to Ali - even a bad loss - still carries weight more than 40 years later.

Earnie Shavers, 63, was never a heavyweight champion. He was perhaps the hardest puncher in the history of the division - 68 of his 74 victories came by knockout. And he is legend for not one, but two losses.

One of those was a close decision to Ali in 1977, when he hurt Ali with a right hand in the second round. “Earnie hit me so hard, it shook my kinfolk back in Africa,” Ali said.

The second loss came two years later against champion Larry Holmes. Shavers knocked down Holmes in the seventh round, and Holmes appeared to be finished. But he managed to get up, survive the round and go on to stop Shavers in the 11th round. Holmes said after the fight that Earnie’s punch was the hardest he ever took.

And so Shavers is a legend.

“The Ali fight changed my life 100 percent in terms of business,” he said. “I get calls every day because of that fight.”

Of the loss to Holmes, Shavers said: “I was champ for about seven seconds. But he got up. He wanted his title back. Larry is one of my best friends in the fight game. We get together from time to time.”

Gerry Cooney was a force of nature as a heavyweight contender. He was 25-0 with 22 knockouts, including two stunning first-round knockouts of Ron Lyle and Ken Norton, when he faced Larry Holmes in 1982 in the biggest heavyweight fight of the decade, one that promoted Cooney as “The Great White Hope.” Holmes stopped Cooney in 13 rounds, and Cooney’s career was pretty much over after that.

Still, Cooney, 52, is billed as a legend - and he truly is in the business of boxing because of his postcareer commitment to charity work and helping down-and-out fighters.

“I never got a chance to reach my potential because I wasn’t part of the Don King empire, so I was only fighting once a year,” Cooney said. “I was a young kid, and I stayed away and it hurt me. I knocked out Ken Norton in one round, and I needed three fights that year against top 10 guys so when I had a chance to fight Holmes, I might have beaten him. I was just with Holmes last Sunday, and he said if I had waited a year to fight him, I would have beaten him.”

It is said that the next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing. That certainly is the case for the fighters who were willing to step into the ring with legends - and came out sharing a piece of that legend.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.