THE career of Jimmy Ellis, the slick boxer who reigned as WBA heavyweight champion from 1968-1970, always languished in the shadows of a golden era. Ellis, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, died on May 6, 2014 in his Louisville hometown at the age of 74, his memory defined by losses to Joe Frazier and his friend and stablemate, Muhammad Ali.
That Ellis’ name rarely stands alongside his leading contemporaries should say more about the era than Jimmy himself, for wins over Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo and Leotis Martin speak volumes for his quality.
“You got to know,” Ali declared after stopping Ellis in 12 rounds in 1971, “next to me Jimmy Ellis is the best heavyweight boxer in the world. He’s a much better boxer than Joe Frazier.”
But Frazier might have objected to such claims. “Smokin’” Joe was at his fearsome best when he steamrolled Ellis in a 1970 unification showdown, and five years later, when both had long tumbled from their peaks, he repeated the stoppage victory.
Perhaps Ellis, born in 1940, was always destined to remain in the background. Although he split bouts with Ali (then Cassius Clay) as an amateur, the level ground had crumbled by the time they turned professional. One year after Cassius had won an Olympic gold, Ellis quietly ventured into the paid code as a middleweight, and by 1965, after starving himself to make the weight, five losses (to the likes of Rubin Carter, George Benton and Don Fullmer) stained his 20-fight record. Ellis sent a letter to Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, pleading for help. The affable coach took on the role of trainer and manager, and immediately advised the 6ft 1in Ellis to jump to heavyweight. Ellis flourished – once Ali, now his sparring partner, had been removed from view.
The heavyweight championship was declared vacant due to Muhammad’s stance on Vietnam and Ellis was a surprise choice to take part in an eight-man tournament organised by the WBA to find a successor. The outsider halted puncher Leotis Martin in nine rounds, then outscored the robust Oscar Bonavena over 12 to set up an April 1968 final with Jerry Quarry. The fight itself was a dud, but Ellis took the 15-round decision and a portion of the world heavyweight title.
While his rival Joe Frazier – recognised as champion by the New York State Athletic Commission – enhanced his credentials with a string of emphatic wins, Ellis failed to convince fans he was fit to be king. He struggled past Floyd Patterson in Sweden, and suffered a broken nose along the way. It was an injury that kept him out of the ring throughout 1969, which was far from ideal preparation for his unification showdown with Frazier the following year. Ellis was a hefty 6-1 underdog.
“Odds don’t mean nothing to me,” he said at the time. “I’m a fighter, not a gambler. The odds were against me against Martin, Bonavena and Quarry, and I won them all, and I expect to win this one.”
More than 18,000 poured into New York’s Madison Square Garden and Ellis, decorated with a satin robe and sparkling lapels, looked confident as he danced around the ring. He carried that mindset into the opening session, his fast jab and accompanying right picking off the onrushing Frazier. But he could not contain him for long. He was twice dropped in the fourth before Dundee hauled him out of action.
With the world clamouring to see Frazier take on Ali, Jimmy Ellis slipped back into the darkness. He returned nine months later with a low-key victory over Alberto Davila and followed that by beating Tony Doyle to earn a clash with George Chuvalo. Again, Ellis’ chances of victory were dismissed but, despite being outweighed by almost 30lbs, he won impressively over 10 rounds.
The success sealed the 1971 showdown with Ali, who was nursing his wounds after losing the Fight of the Century to Frazier. Dundee was left with a problem – who to train. He chose Ellis. In public, Ali faked anger to market the bout but, in private, he accepted Dundee’s decision, and employed Harry Wiley to coach him for one fight only.
“With Muhammad I was the trainer, only part of the team,” Angelo explained later. “With Jimmy I was the team.”
But Dundee could not mastermind his great pupil’s downfall and, in front of 30,000 fans, Ali emerged from a slow start to stop Ellis late on.
Jimmy returned again, notching several wins but losing the big ones. A one-round loss to Earnie Shavers in 1973 ended his six-year spell near the top of the rankings, and in 1975 he lost for the last time, halted in nine rounds by Frazier.
Ellis’ final record of 40-12-1 (24) is one that shines with closer inspection. Although boxing history will not label him a legend, his role in a legendary era was integral.