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Succeeding Muhammad Ali

muhammad ali
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When Muhammad was forced off the heavyweight throne in 1967, the World Boxing Association staged an audacious eight-man tournament to find a successor. Jack Hirsch tells the story

THE year was 1967 and the world was changing fast. It was the start of a revolution in which society could express its feelings in a way it had never before. It was the age of long-haired hippies, the raised fist signifying the black power movement, riots protesting the Vietnam war, young people smoking marijuana as their recreational activity of choice, and virtually anything else that went against the grain of the accepted norm.

It was the era of The Beatles, Martin Luther King, Robert Francis Kennedy, and of course Muhammad Ali. JFK and Malcolm X had been assassinated earlier in the decade, and in 1968, MLK and RFK were to follow. Much later, John Lennon would meet a similar fate. But perhaps the man at the greatest risk, the one despised more than any other person walking the face of the earth escaped the violent destiny that had befell the others. But Ali did pay a heavy price, when on April 28, 1967 he refused to take the oath to serve in the United States military. He was immediately stripped of his world heavyweight title while having his boxing licence revoked.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali would become a figure of protest The Courier-Journal/USA Today Sports

With Ali forced to the sidelines the powers that be immediately swung into action to find his successor. The major players were the World Boxing Association which was the only relevant sanctioning body in existence, ABC television in the United States who had Ali sidekick Howard Cosell behind the mic, Mike Malitz of Sports Action Incorporated who arranged the television deal with ABC. They worked closely with Harvard attorney, Bob Arum, who had promoted Ali’s title defence in Toronto against George Chuvalo the year before, and judge, Roy Hofheinz, who ran the Houston Astrodome. Together they gave us arguably the greatest tournament the sport of boxing has ever seen. In a period of less than nine months, the heavyweight division underwent a facelift like never before or since.

Although many were sympathetic to Ali’s plight and Ring Magazine continued to list him as world champion, it was unknown when and if he would ever box again. Time waits for no man as Ali learned to his consternation while embarking on a prolonged legal battle for justice.

While Ali was doing his fighting in the courts, the WBA extended tournament invitations to its top eight rated heavyweight contenders. They were, in order: Karl Mildenberger; Joe Frazier; Oscar Bonavena; Ernie Terrell; Thad Spencer; Floyd Patterson; Jerry Quarry; Jimmy Ellis.

Joe Frazier
Joe Frazier had hopes of fighting the tournament winner, but declined to enter Action Images/Sporting Pictures

The funding was in place as ABC heavily bankrolled the matches with set purses of $50,000 for the first round, $75,000 for the semi-finals, and $125,000 for the championship fight. At that time, it was more than any of the combatants could have earned going solo, the lone possible exception being Frazier who, through manager Yancey Durham, became the only one of the eight to decline the invitation.

Frazier’s decision though was less financial than about the risk entering the tournament posed. At the time the jury was still out on “Smokin” Joe, with some believing that other competitors were as good or better than he was. The 1964 Olympic Games heavyweight gold medallist was becoming a property to be handled with care. Additionally, Durham had built a relationship with Madison Square Garden. They would promote Frazier with the hopes of ultimately matching him against the tournament winner.

Frazier’s fellow Philadelphian, Leotis Martin who had once been trained by Durham became the beneficiary of the now open slot. In a largely laughable move, and in keeping with the mindless fun and games of the future, the WBA demoted Frazier to No.9 in their rankings and elevated Martin from ninth to eighth, thus qualifying him for the tournament. Martin was not entirely rewarded at least financially. Because he had come in through the back door his opening fight purse was less than the others, reported to be $27,500.

Seventeen days before the tournament began, Frazier stopped George Chuvalo in four rounds in Madison Square Garden. The tournament would proceed but Frazier’s name would hang over it, much like Ali, who never stopped reminding the masses that it was he who was the real champion.

FIRST ROUND

The Astrodome was the first domed stadium in mankind seating over 50,000 for boxing events. It had hosted Ali’s title defences against both Cleveland Williams and Terrell. It was the site of the opening of the tournament on the afternoon of August 5, 1967 where Ellis and Martin would first box followed by Spencer versus Terrell. The Ali buzz was missing inside of the massive venue as only 13,900 showed up. The disappointing turnout eliminated the Astrodome from consideration in hosting the remaining tournament contests. 

Ellis was a career middleweight who had recently moved up to the heavyweight ranks and created a big stir by knocking out Johnny Persol in one round on the undercard of Ali’s victory over Zora Folley at Madison Square Garden the previous March. On the strength of that he got his world rating. Until then, Ellis’ greatest claim to fame was having been Ali’s longtime sparring partner and boyhood friend from Louisville.

It was considered a toss-up going in, but Ellis took command late in round one, bombarding Martin with rights that caused a severe cut on the inside of his mouth. Things settled down from there, and they fought on comparatively even terms the rest of the way. However, when Martin’s cut worsened it was stopped in the ninth round. 

jimmy ellis
Ellis was victorious at the first stage of the tournament

Terrell was the tournament favourite despite having lost his WBA title to Ali at the Astrodome six months before. The only question was if the brutal nature of the Ali defeat had taken anything out of the Chicago heavyweight. As it turned out, it had.

Spencer, from Portland, dropped Terrell in the second round. Ernie returned the favour in the fourth even though it was ruled a slip. Spencer chugged forward, but Terrell’s jab and ring generalship appeared to have him slightly in front after eight rounds before he faded over the last four. That Spencer deserved the decision there was no doubt, but the scores of 118-110, 118-110, and 116-110 flattered him.

Next stop was Frankfurt, Germany, on September 16, 1967 where national hero Mildenberger took on Argentinian strong man Bonavena.  One year before, in Frankfurt, Mildenberger came up with an unexpectedly strong showing against Ali, lasting into the 12th round and having some good moments along the way. Based on that performance, and the fact he was boxing at home, Mildenberger was a huge favorite going in.   

But it was a frustrating night for the German and his fans, for whenever he seemed to be taking charge of the contest his momentum was stymied by a knockdown, four in all, occurring in rounds one, four, seven, and 10. Under the five-point must system the 12-rounder was scored 56-47, 58-53, and 57-53. 

If there was a sentimental favourite it was the beloved Patterson, the former two-time heavyweight king. A couple of months before the tournament got underway Patterson ventured to Los Angeles, to take on young prospect Quarry who it was thought he would be too experienced for. However, Patterson was dropped twice in the second round, would floor Quarry later, but could not muster more than a draw. They rematched in the final fight of the opening round on October 28, 1967, again in Los Angeles.

The sequel started out much like the first, with the Californian dropping his opponent in the second and fourth rounds before Patterson rallied over the second half of the contest. When the majority decision – by scores of 6-6, 7-6, and 7-6 – was announced in Quarry’s favour it created an uproar, but taking into account the knockdowns the decision was close enough to have gone either way.

SEMI-FINALS

We were now down to four. Ellis was the man on the rise starting to come out of Ali’s shadow and forging his own identity. Bonavena’s powerful style and his near victory over Frazier the year before intrigued people. Spencer’s triumph over Terrell and his air of confidence made him the frontrunner of the reduced pack. Quarry was still lightly-regarded, his signature win over Patterson not impressing many people.   

Muhammad Ali
Ali was the only man who would stop Bonavena

On December 2, 1967 in Louisville, Ellis the underdog rode his hometown advantage to a unanimous 12-round decision over Bonavena, winning by scores of scores of 56-53, 55-54, and 59-53. Ellis, the boxer turned puncher, dropped Bonavena in both the third and 10th rounds. The last knockdown happened as Ellis appeared to be fading and Bonavena coming on. Bonavena won the last two rounds as Ellis killed the clock on his way to the tournament final.

Then on February 3, 1968 in Oakland, Quarry pulled a shocker, dropping Spencer in both the fourth and 10th rounds while dominating him throughout. Quarry’s speed overwhelmed Spencer, who looked ragged, reportedly being lax in training. In the 12th rounda sustained barrage of blows from Quarry forced a stoppage with only three seconds left.

THE FINAL

It would now be Ellis and Quarry in the tournament final to be fought on April 27, 1968 at The Coliseum Arena in Oakland. In the interim however, Frazier would stop Buster Mathis in 11 rounds in New York, thus being given recognition by that State, a few others, and a couple of countries as the new champion. The tournament though had captured the imagination of the public to the point that Frazier still needed to fight the winner of it more than they him.

Financially, at least, Frazier’s move to forgo the tournament had not cost him. He received $50,000 for the Chuvalo fight and $175,000 for defeating Mathis in his two high profile matches since snubbing the WBA. Quarry and Ellis would total $250,000 each for their three tournament fights which if it were to be pro-rated was less than what Frazier took home.

Quarry’s showing against Spencer had lifted him to another level, erased the stigma of the Patterson decision and made him a slight favorite over Ellis. Because the championship was on the line, the contest was scheduled for 15 rounds, not 12 like all the others were.

The final turned out to be a boring fight in the eyes of the public. Both Quarry and Ellis, who exhibited stamina issues in previous fights, carefully conserved their energy, neither having gone 15 rounds before.

Quarry was a brilliant counter puncher who was at his best setting traps while fighting off the ropes. He used the rope-a-dope almost as effectively as Ali later would, but in a far different manner. Quarry, whose hands were extraordinarily fast, would unleash quick combinations as he burst from the boundaries. It was how he had dropped many an opponent.

Dundee, Ellis’ manager and trainer, devised a brilliant strategy. Whenever Quarry tried to lull him in, Ellis backed off to the middle of the ring. Forced to come forward at all times, Quarry was not as effective as normal. He did hurt Ellis badly in the 13th round, but could not follow up. Ellis’ jabs, occasional jarring right hands, and ring generalship was the difference as he took a majority decision by scores of 6-6, 7-6, and 10-5. Quarry concurred, sportingly saying that Ellis had definitely won. However, the closeness of the scorecards makes one shudder to think what would have been the tournaments legacy had the final contest been called a draw. It would have been hard to sell a rematch after such a tedious affair.

The tournament did not fully resolve who the world heavyweight champion was. That would come later. But what is indisputable is that it was a lot of fun while it lasted.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?

Sadly, none of the eight are still alive. Here we examine how their careers played out post tournament and what became of them afterward.

JIMMY ELLIS: His only two noteworthy victories after the tournament were a disputed 15-round decision over Patterson in his only successful title defence in 1968, and an impressive 10-rounder won on points against Chuvalo three years later. Frazier and Ali proved to be on a much higher level; Ellis would lose in five rounds to Frazier in 1970 and in 12 to Ali in 1971. Ellis eventually transitioned into the role of a gatekeeper, a name opponent for others to forge their reputation. His final record was 40-12-1 (24). Although Ellis trained in Miami Beach, he lived in Louisville his whole life. Ellis died in 2014 at the age of 74, from complications caused by dementia.

Jimmy Ellis
Jimmy Ellis would lose to Joe Frazier

LEOTIS MARTIN: He performed remarkably well post-tournament, knocking out Mildenberger in Germany, Spencer in  a thriller in the UK, and Sonny Liston in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, Martin was unable to cash in. A detached retina suffered in the Liston fight necessitated his retirement. A careful examination of Martin’s record 31-5 (19) tells us that he was vastly underrated. Martin was obscure in retirement. He died in 1995, of a stroke at the age of 56.    

THAD SPENCER: Spencer’s career completely fell apart following his exit from the tournament. In fact, he never won a fight again over the remainder of his career going 0-7-1. Substance abuse problems contributed heavily to his decline. Spencer who was 32-13-1 (14) overall had multiple violent altercations outside of the ring before eventually straightening his life out. He remained in boxing, promoting an occasional show in Bakersfield, California in the 1980s. Spencer died in 2013, at age 70 of dementia.

ERNIE TERRELL: He lost his first fight post tournament, being defeated on points by Manual Ramos. Terrell then laid off for close to three years before making a comeback. He performed well winning seven against credible opposition, but could never work his way back to another title shot. Terrell’s career ended on a sour note as he was robbed of a decision against Chuck Wepner in New Jersey, and then stopped in a round by Jeff Merritt at Madison Square Garden.

Ernie Terrell
Terrell was overshadowed by Ali

Terrell, 46-9 (21), became a successful businessman outside of the ring owning a janitorial service and a record company. His was a success story, though he had to live with the stigma of the Ali loss until he died which was in 2014 at age 75. Terrell’s cause of death is unknown.   

OSCAR BONAVENA: He fought 33 times after the tournament, losing a 15-round decision to Frazier in December 1968, and a 10-round squeaker to Patterson in 1972. In between, Bonavena was halted in 15 rounds by Ali, the only time in his career he was stopped. Bonavena 58-9-1 (44), continued to be a perennial contender during his era. Although Oscar won his last seven fights, his career was on the downside when it tragically ended. Bonavena who lived life in the fast lane died violently, being shot to death at a brothel near Reno in 1976, at the age of 35.    

KARL MILDENBERGER: Fought just three more times post tournament, losing two of those. In his last fight he surrendered the European title to Henry Cooper being disqualified in eight rounds. Mildenberger 53-6-3 (19) was the first southpaw to ever challenge for the world heavyweight title and will always be remembered primarily for his fight with Ali. Mildenberger was a lifeguard in Germany for 20 years and was involved with various business ventures upon retiring. He passed away in 2018 at age 80.

JERRY QUARRY: Of all the tournament entrants, Quarry 53-9-4 (32) enjoyed the greatest success inside the ring post-tournament. There were massive wins over the likes of Buster Mathis, Mac Foster, Ron Lyle, and Ernie Shavers among others, but the bottom line was that Ali and Frazier who each beat him two times were a bridge too far. Quarry remained a high-profile contender until 1975. Upon his retirement Quarry became an outstanding analyst for CBS television, but was dismissed from that role in 1977, when he announced that he would be making a comeback under the direction of Don King who was affiliated with ABC. Quarry’s final fight was in 1992, when he returned to the ring after a close to nine-year layoff, losing a six-round decision to one Ron Cranmer. Quarry took an awful beating. In later years the punches Quarry received resulted in his condition becoming so bad that he could not even feed himself. He died in 1999, at the age of 53, of dementia.

FLOYD PATTERSON: The controversial loss to Ellis took place 11 months after he was eliminated by Quarry. A two-year layoff followed before Patterson embarked on a comeback in which he won nine in a row, the highlight being the Bonavena victory. This led to a rematch against Ali on September 20, 1972 at MSG. Patterson boxed well, but a closed eye resulted in him being pulled out at the end of the seventh round. He never fought again finishing up with a 55-8-1 (40) record. Upon his retirement, Patterson remained active as a trainer. His adopted son Tracy Harris Patterson won a world title under his direction, but they later had a falling out. Patterson then became the chairman on the New York State Athletic commission, but memory loss forced him to step down from that role after he had served a few years. Patterson died in 2006 at the age of 71. Prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease were said to be the cause.

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  • What a fantastic article – really enjoyed it – well done Jack Hirsch.

    Thankfully boxing has improved with regards to fighter health and safety and this will hopefully continue, so that the clear brain damage caused by boxing that afflicted poor Jerry Quarry, Muhammad Ali and to some extent Joe Frazier will become a thing of the past. We’re not quite there yet but hopefully we’ll get there – I’d like to see some of the huge sums of money in boxing go towards a fund or body that would help with the social and health problems encountered by fighters after they retire.

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