Jimmy Ellis once beat Cassius Clay as a teenager. But he could never quite beat Muhammad Ali.
Saved by a referee from further punishment by Ali in the Astrodome in 1971, Ellis outside of the ring fruitlessly shadow boxed the other heavyweight champion from Louisville, Kentucky for much of his life. But he couldn’t quite escape his famous friend’s expansive penumbra.
Ellis, heavyweight champion from 1968 to 1970, died Tuesday at 74 in his hometown, where he sang gospel music and worked in the parks department following his boxing career. He survived a wife of nearly a half century and his six kids survive him.
“Jimmy Ellis,” Muhammad Ali explained in the 1960s, “could beat any heavyweight in the world today but me–and he is my sparring partner.” The son of a Baptist preacher, Ellis aimed to make the world know that the Black Muslims enveloping the heavyweight champion hadn’t enveloped him. He told Sports Illustrated, “His world ain’t mine and mine ain’t certainly his.” He also looked to forge an identity distinct from his image as the guy sharing Ali’s training-camp ring. “I was made out to be nothin’ but a sparring partner,” Ellis confessed to Sports Illustrated in 1968. “It bothered me to be run down like that. I was more than that. I knew it. I think I’ve proven that now.”
But as Ali’s childhood friend, sparring partner, and fellow Angelo Dundee protégé–the trainer curiously cornered the smaller man in his 1971 twelfth-round TKO loss to Ali–Ellis couldn’t help but find himself linked with The Greatest.
The small heavyweight with a large afro stepped out of Ali’s shadow when boxing’s sanctioning bodies forced Ali to step out of the ring. Ellis knocked down Oscar Bonavena twice en route to a unanimous decision in 1967. He defeated Jerry Quarry, and claimed a $125,000 purse, the next year to win the heavyweight title stripped from his fellow Kentuckian for refusing to join the armed forces. For a moment, the man trying to escape The Greatest staked his claim as the greatest. And in his sole successful title defense, he stole a decision in Sweden from Floyd Patterson.
Jimmy Ellis appeared as a flyweight among heavyweights in an age when the division loomed largest in the public consciousness. Long before the creation of the cruiserweight division, Ellis often weighed in below 200 pounds. He tipped the scales at 189, for instance, against Ali. He relied on speed, slickness, movement, and deceptive power to overwhelm much bigger men.
But the public couldn’t quite accept a blown-up middleweight–and one who had been defeated by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Gene Fullmer’s brother to boot–as the inheritor of the most prestigious title in sports. Nevertheless, when he beat Quarry to capture the vacant heavyweight belt, 120 million people–a record at the time–tuned in around the world. Still, as Sports Illustrated put it: “Ellis–it was unanimous–had no star quality, in or out of the ring.” So, rather than accept the soft-spoken Ellis as champion after he won an eight-man WBA heavyweight tournament devised by ABC Sports, Madison Square Garden, a pugilistic power surely as prestigious as the Wide World of Sports, crowned its own champion in Joe Frazier.
This pope-antipope situation, abnormally normal now, struck the boxing faithful as anathema. If Ellis plays as a throwback to Rocky Marciano and other lighter heavyweights now extinct, he anticipated the alphabet-soup menagerie of “champions.” Such disputations of what had been an undisputed title called for a resolution. Naturally, Frazier and Ellis met in Madison Square Garden in a fight called by Howard Cosell belatedly broadcast on Wide World of Sports. Ellis won the first round, fought competitively in the second, and then ate a series of lefts that left him, in the words of Cosell, “dazed and glazed” in the third. Frazier the peekaboo puncher became Frazier the headhunter. He unleashed massive shots in the fourth that twice sent Ellis to the canvass. Angelo Dundee wisely blocked a protesting Ellis from continuing in the fifth.
Watching Ellis suffer through Joe Frazier’s hellacious haymakers makes one wonder if the Louisville pair’s common opponent in their most memorable bouts served as the architect of their ultimate downfalls. Ellis launched his boxing career after watching a teenaged Cassius Clay beat a friend on a local TV show called “Tomorrow’s Champions” that showcased aspiring amateur boxers. His life ends much the way Ali’s will–suffering from a neurodegenerative disease (Parkinson’s in Ali’s case, Alzheimer’s in Ellis’s) likely brought on by repeated blows to the head. The blows that neither Ali nor Ellis wished ever to repeat came from Joe Frazier’s left hand.
“Strong chin and punching power aside,” Ali reacted to his friend’s death, “it was his gentle manner and the compassion in his heart that I found most worthy of admiration. I had a kinship with Jimmy and felt like he and I were of the same cloth. He was a great athlete and a caring man. Great competitors who happen to be great friends are rare. Jimmy Ellis was that to me and I will miss him.”
And boxing fans miss their era. We lost Ken Norton last year, Joe Frazier in 2011, and now Jimmy Ellis. Leotis Martin, Bonavena, Quarry, and Patterson–the fighters Ellis defeated during the ascent to his Everest and the one he fended off while playing king of the mountain–have all gone, too.
We still have ESPN Classic. Surely that beats Wladimir Klitschko versus Alex Leapai.