Bleeding from a wide gash above his right eye, bleeding from ugly holes at both corners of his left eye, the blood streaming through and down a ghostly white cover of cornerman's goo, Earnie Shavers wore a mask of pain.

Larry Holmes was paid $2.5 million to fight Shavers. For Holmes, victory meant he would keep his heavyweight championship. Holmes is undefeated now in 32 fights. He stopped Shavers with a minute left in the 11th round tonight.

It hurt. It hurt Shavers, who went to a hospital to be sewed back together. It hurt anyone who has seen Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson and so believed this cruelist game was art. This was not art. This was butchery. This was Earnie Shavers exhausted and bleeding and refusing to quit. He put his face in front of Holmes.

Holmes didn't want to hit it.

"Because he was hurt," Holmes said, "and he's got some babies. I held back one time. And then I showed the referee I could get off anytime."

For $2.5 million and the heavyweight championship, Larry Holmes didn't want to keep hitting Shavers in the face. He wanted the fight stopped. He said he asked the referee, Dave Pearl, to stop it. Holmes could get off anytime, which means he could throw punches in bunches until Shaver might be rendered dead.

Dead. The man was defenseless. At the start of the 10th round, Holmes, by actual count, hif Shavers 12 times before Shavers threw a single punch. It was 21-1 when Shavers landed a second punch, a weak pawing jab. Only a will of iron kept Shavers on his feet. Redwoods have fallen under less relentless assault. Shavers staggered and walked limp-legged and bled and couldn't hold up his hands in defense.

Holmes didn't want to hit Shavers anymore.

"I told the referee, 'Earnie's taking a beating, he's cut over both eyes, he can't win, I'm keeping pressure on him, I am banging him up. Look at him, man."

('The referee looked at me like I'm crazy. So I hit Earnie, I hit him again, and I looked at the referee and said, "What I got to do, kill him?"

This is the cruelist game. Shavers was subjected to inhuman punishment for a terrible reason. Boxing's code of conduct insists that a man not be declared a loser if he has the remotest chance of knocking out his tormentor. So Shavers, a bomb-throwing puncher -- was left to take this torture on the chance -- the small chance -- he would knock out Holmes.

"When you have a hitter, it only takes on shot from that hitter to put you out," said the referee, Pearl.

In the 11th round, Pearl stepped between the attacking Holmes and the bleeding Shavers. He asked Shavers, "You all right?"

Men run over by cars look better than Shavers did at that moment. Shavers, who is 35 and has 66 fights in a dozen years, as a pro, did what old prize fighters always do. He looked at the referee and said, "I'm fine."

Pearl said, "When I looked at Shavers, his eyes were as clear as a bell. I heard Holmes saying something to me, but I couldn't understand a word of it. When you got a guy that hits like Shavers, it only takes one shot. I looked at him and decided that if he got hit one more time and didn't protect himself, I'd stop it."

As soon as Pearl stepped away from the fighters, Holmes struck Shavers with two more jabs. This time Shavers stopped it for good. As he raised Holmes' hand in victory, Shavers did not complain. He walked directly to his corner. For $300,000, Shavers tried beyond most men's ability. It is his game, this cruelest game, and he played his part the way it was written. Only men bleed.

Holmes went to Shavers' corner where the loser sat slouched on a stool.

"I told him, 'I love you, you're a great fighter, you've got a lot more fights ahead of you,'" Holmes said.

Save for one punch, Shavers was no match for Holmes tonight, just as he could win only one round from one official in a 12-round fight with Holmes a year and a half ago. Holmes is too tall, too fast, too much the jabber for a Shavers whose 58 victories include 56 knockouts. Shavers is no artist, he brings bombs to work.

He threw one overhand in the seventh round. A reporter's notebook had a spot of blood on it right above a note about the bleeding and a note that said, "S tired, no chance, H moving, jabbing, all over." And no sooner had the reporter made those notes than there came this tremendous crash -- KERR-ASHH! -- against the wooden floor of the ring.

Holmes was down. Shavers had struck him with an overhand right thrown in the fashion of Nolan Ryan bringing a fast ball to the plate. From upright dominance, suddenly Holmes had gone to horizontal suffering. His eyes were unfocused, his legs out of touch with his brains.

And yet he was up at the count of three.

"The guy hit harder than I thought he did," Holmes said.

But Holmes held on for the last 35 seconds of the round and came out dancing in the eighth. Now condemned by that one punch to another five rounds of brutality, Shavers never threatened again.

"I did what a champion is supposed to do," Holmes said.

He did it utterly without craft. He had Shavers defenseless for a half hour and could not set him up for a knockdown. He did nothing but stab the bull inelegantly, and for his courage this bull was allowed to live.