On This Day: Former heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell passed away

Ernie Terrell
Matt Christie pays tribute to Ernie Terrell, one of the most accomplished heavyweights of the 1960s

ERNIE TERRELL, the former WBA heavyweight champion, died at the age of 75. His name will forever be linked to Muhammad Ali who mercilessly thrashed him in 1967.

According to Tirrell’s wife, Maxine, his death occurred on December 16, 2014 as a result of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, Terrell turned professional in his hometown of Chicago in 1957. The tall, muscled fighter had an awkward, spoiling style that few contenders were willing to face. But he proved his worth in sparring sessions against some of the leading fighters in the world. The 6ft 6in unit sparred 100 rounds with the fearsome Sonny Liston. “That man ain’t hurt me yet,” Terrell said of the then-heavyweight king. “He’s a very mean fighter, especially to his sparring partners, but there’s nothing especially sensational about Liston. His punch is only ordinary.”

Liston – who became Terrell’s friend – promised Ernie a shot at the title but that opportunity fell to young Cassius Clay in 1964. To prepare for the brutish Liston, Clay’s trainer Angelo Dundee employed Terrell as a sparring partner. He was dismissed after just a round because his long left jab had caused Clay problems and Dundee was concerned the young challenger’s confidence might be affected.

Liston could not break Clay, and the Louisville fighter became the new champion. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and signed to fight Liston in a rematch. The sequel angered the WBA, who stripped Ali of their title and nominated Terrell and Eddie Machen to scrap for the vacant belt. Terrell won a 15-round decision and defended what many referred to as a ‘cardboard’ championship with points wins over George Chuvalo and Doug Jones.

The giant was matched with Ali for the unified crown in February 1967. As well as their brief sparring session, they had also spent time together as amateurs. Terrell had long known Ali as Clay and addressed him accordingly. Although he later claimed he did it out of habit, and not disrespect, Ali was outraged.

“You will eat those words, letter by letter,” promised Muhammad before their showdown, staged at Houston’s Astrodome. Terrell’s advantages in height and reach persuaded some that the underdog had a chance, but it was no contest at all. For the first eight rounds, Ali dominated from distance, and punished Terrell up close. A stoppage looked imminent such was Muhammad’s supremacy, but he fed off his rival’s pain, and suspended the beating for the full 15 rounds, winning a lopsided decision. “What is my name?” a maniacal Ali famously screamed at Terrell in the midst of combat.

The beaten fighter suffered a broken bone just below his left eye. Terrell displayed extreme bravery yet his career at the top level was all but over. Losses to Thad Spencer and Manuel Ramos forced him to retire, before a middling comeback ended in 1973 with defeats to Chuck Wepner and Jeff Merrit.

Terrell’s first love was music and the fighter found fame with his band, Ernie Terrell and the Heavyweights, who were featured on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and headlined in Las Vegas. He returned to boxing as a manager, trainer and promoter in the 1980s.

In one of the greatest eras in world boxing history, big Ernie stood tall. His record of 46-9 (21) also included wins over men like Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley and Bob Foster.

May he rest in peace.

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