Ex-Boxing Champion Jimmy Ellis Dies at 74
By BRUCE SCHREINER Associated Press
Jimmy Ellis, a heavyweight champion who sparred with an up-and-coming Muhammad Ali and later fought some of the era's best boxers, died Tuesday. He was 74.
Ellis died at a Louisville hospital, brother Jerry Ellis said. Jimmy Ellis had Alzheimer's disease in recent years.
Ellis, the son of a preacher who loved singing gospel music, held the WBA heavyweight title from 1968 to 1970. He lost to Joe Frazier in a fight to unify the world heavyweight championship in 1970. In 1971, Ellis was stopped by Ali in the 12th round. He retired in 1975.
Ali remembered his longtime friend as a "master in the ring."
"In the world of heavyweights, I have always thought that Jimmy was one of the best," Ali said in a statement in which he and his wife, Lonnie, expressed condolences.
Ali said his friendship with Ellis began as both rose through the ranks as amateurs in their hometown of Louisville.
"As a former champion, Jimmy was known for exceptional hand speed and a strong chin," Ali said.
Both fighters fought under the tutelage of Angelo Dundee. The great trainer often said that Ellis packed more punch than he was given credit for, Ali recalled. But Ali said Ellis' greatest qualities were his "gentle manner and the compassion in his heart."
"I had a kinship with Jimmy and felt like he and I were of the same cloth," Ali said. "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."
Ellis defeated Jerry Quarry to win the WBA crown in 1968. It was at a time when Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Ellis defended the title by defeating Floyd Patterson before losing to Frazier.
Ellis was one of the lightest heavyweights, but he compensated with plenty of grit.
"He was always the smaller guy fighting a bigger guy, but he was always determined," his brother said. "He didn't always come out successful, but he was very competitive. He was a proud winner and he was a proud loser as well."
After leaving boxing, Ellis spent years training fighters and later worked for the Louisville parks department.
"He was always true to Louisville," his brother said. "This was his pride and joy. This is where he wanted to be."
Ellis was preceded in death by his wife, Mary. They had six children together.
Louisville boxing champ Jimmy Ellis dies at 74
Louisville boxer Jimmy Ellis, who was the World Boxing Association heavyweight champion from 1968 to '70 and a friend and former opponent of Muhammad Ali, died early Tuesday.
James Albert Ellis, 74, suffered from Alzheimer's disease in recent years, and his symptoms worsened after the death of his wife, Mary, in 2006, brother Jerry Ellis said in an interview with The Courier-Journal.
At 6-feet-1 and about 200 pounds in the prime of his career, Ellis was one of the lightest heavyweight champions ever and rose to prominence during a golden era of boxing that featured names such as Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson.
"He was a little man, but he had a huge right hand," Jerry Ellis said. "Jimmy was a strategic fighter, too. … I remember when I would go to (trainer Angelo Dundee's) gym in Miami Beach, a lot of the fighters would approach Jimmy when he was hitting the heavy bags, and they would ask him if he would show them how he delivered his right hand. It was as straight as an arrow, and it was solid."
Ellis claimed the WBA belt by defeating Jerry Quarry in Oakland, Calif., in April 1968 — the final match of an eight-man challenger tournament created to determine a champion after Ali, a fellow Louisvillian, was stripped of the title for refusing to join the Army.
Jimmy Ellis, left, former World Boxing Association Champion, and Muhammad Ali, former world heavyweight king, stretch out clenched fists as they signed in New York for a 12-round bout at the Houston Astrodome in 1971. (Photo: AP)
Ellis successfully defended his WBA title once, against Patterson later that year. He lost his championship to Frazier on a technical knockout after four rounds of a unification bout in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 16, 1970.
He won his next three matches before a 12th-round TKO loss to Ali in a North American Boxing Federation championship bout — their only professional matchup — at the Astrodome in Houston on July 26, 1971.
Ellis also fought such greats as George Chuvalo, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and Oscar Bonavena while compiling a 40-12-1 pro record, including 24 knockout victories. His career ended in 1975 after he was accidentally thumbed in the left eye by a sparring partner and lost his vision on that side.
Ellis was 1-1 against Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — while they were amateurs. He had watched Clay fight on the "Tomorrow's Champions" local television show in the late 1950s, and "I thought, 'I can beat that guy,'" Ellis told The Courier-Journal in 2004, before his induction into the World Boxing Hall of Fame. "In my mind, I thought I could do it."
Ellis had a "brotherly" relationship with Ali over the years, Jerry Ellis said.
Jerry, who is 10 years younger than Jimmy, remembers as a youngster accompanying his brother to Louisville's Columbia Gym, where Ali also trained. Ali would pick Jerry up on his shoulders and run him around the gym, and he nicknamed him "Little Ellis," a name that stuck with him all his life.
As pros, Ellis and Ali were both trained by the legendary Dundee. He was also Ellis' manager, so he was in his corner for his 1971 pro bout with Ali.
Jerry Ellis said Ali's wife, Lonnie, passed along her condolences during a phone conversation Tuesday, and in a statement submitted through the Muhammad Ali Center, the 72-year-old Ali called Ellis a "master in the ring."
"Lonnie and I are very saddened by the loss of our friend, and fellow Louisvillian, Jimmy Ellis," Ali said. "Our friendship began on the local Louisville boxing show 'Tomorrow's Champions' and continued to grow throughout the years. … In the world of heavyweights, I have always thought that Jimmy was one of the best.
"… 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."
Jerry Ellis, as a young adult, traveled with his brother throughout his boxing career and credits Jimmy for enabling him to see the world.
"His reception overseas and in other cities and other states was unbelievable," Jerry said. "They treated him just like the champion that he was."
Jerry Ellis remembers the immense happiness his family felt when his brother defeated Quarry for the WBA title in Oakland with his parents and many relatives and friends from Louisville on hand.
"I felt like the champion," Jerry said with a laugh. "I was strutting like a peacock. It was a great day in all of our lives. … We had a huge celebration. They gave Jimmy a trophy about 5 feet tall, and we had to buy a ticket on the plane for it to get it back to Louisville."
After retiring from boxing, Ellis worked for Louisville Metro Parks from 1989 to 2003, helping manage athletic and recreation programs.
"Jimmy Ellis was not only a great heavyweight champion, he was a champion for our community," said Marty Storch, assistant director of parks who worked with Ellis for years. "I was saddened to hear that news today. He was a good man. … I called him 'Governor.' He just commanded respect."
Born on Feb. 24, 1940, Ellis was one of 10 children of the late Walter and Elizabeth Ellis. His father was the pastor at Riverview Baptist Church, and Jimmy grew up a devout Christian. He sang in the Riverview choir and was an active member at the church throughout his life, mowing its lawn before Sunday services for years.
He loved to sing and was an accomplished gospel vocalist. The group called "Jimmy Ellis and the Riverview Spiritual Singers" toured, recorded multiple albums and appeared on Jonathan Winters' and Joey Bishop's national TV shows.
"Jimmy was one of the greatest individuals ever," said Howard Gosser, who managed some of Ellis' music ventures and public appearances after his fighting career. "Morally, physically, you couldn't ask for a better person. He was a very giving person and a Christian fellow."
Jerry Ellis said his brother died at 12:35 a.m. Tuesday while undergoing palliative care at Baptist Hospital East.
"We were there with him when he took his last breaths," he said. "He went quietly. He pretty much slept his way into eternity."
The family believes the blows Ellis took in the ring exacerbated the symptoms of Alzheimer's but didn't necessarily cause the illness. Jerry Ellis said it's difficult for him to watch boxing now because he has seen up close the lifelong toll it took on so many fighters from his brother's generation.
Jimmy Ellis also is survived by three other brothers, William, David and Charles Ellis; a sister, Evelyn Ellis; six children, Jamesetta Wells and James, Inez, Mary, Sonya and Jeff Ellis; 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by brothers Walter Jr., Andrew and Edward Ellis and a sister, also named Mary Ellis.
Ellis' brother Charles boxed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. His son Jeff played football at Male High School and Ohio State University and for professional arena teams, and Jimmy Ellis took great joy in watching his games.
Jeff Ellis said it "means everything in the world" to him that his father was a heavyweight champ.
"When you finally to get to an age to understand what he accomplished, you realize all you need to do as an athlete," he said. "… It just makes you proud to know that you have the work ethic of a champion behind you, and it took me a long way."
Arrangements are pending, but a visitation has been scheduled for Sunday evening at Canaan Baptist Church on Hikes Lane. There will be a funeral on Monday.
"I feel like my brother was the most honest person you'd ever meet," Jerry Ellis said. "He was a very religious person. He took a lot of pride in everything he did in life. He wanted to do it the right way.
"His boxing career was the same way; his singing career was the same way. He was the same way when he went to a sports event, the same way when he was on the job. He just took pride in what he was doing and loved every moment of it and the people who were a part of it."
Steve Jones can be reached at (502) 582-7176 and followed on Twitter at @SteveJones_CJ.
Jimmy Ellis, Ali’s Friend Who Won Heavyweight Crown, Dies at 74
By Stephen Miller and David Henry
Jimmy Ellis, who beat Jerry Quarry to become World Boxing Association heavyweight champion in 1968 and fought the era’s best fighters including his friend, Muhammad Ali, has died. He was 74.
He died yesterday at Baptist Health Louisville hospital in Kentucky, his son, Jeff Ellis, said in a telephone interview. He had suffered from dementia for more than a decade.
Ali’s former sparring partner and a fellow Kentuckian, Ellis was among a group of boxers who traded title belts during one of the heavyweight division’s most celebrated eras. His 15-round majority decision win over Quarry in Oakland, California, came in the final of an eight-man tournament. Later that year in Stockholm, he defended the belt against two-time champion Floyd Patterson in a fight that he also won on points.
“I was made out to be nothin’ but a sparring partner,” Ellis said in a 1968 interview with Sports Illustrated after winning the world title. “It bothered me to be run down like that. I was more than that. I knew it. I think I’ve proven that now.”
Ellis won the WBA belt that Ali held until he was stripped of his titles for refusing induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Ellis, who was 6-foot-1 (185 centimeters) and 197 pounds (89 kilograms) when he took the crown, won 40 bouts, 24 by knockouts, and lost 12 in his professional boxing career.
He was WBA champion until Joe Frazier defeated him in February 1970 at Madison Square Garden in New York. In that fight, Frazier knocked him down twice in the fourth round and Ellis didn’t come out of his corner for the fifth. (Source: Allsport Hulton/Archive via Getty Images)
Ellis began his boxing career at the Columbia Gym in Louisville, where he was trained by police officer Joe Martin, who was credited with spotting Ali’s talent years earlier. Ali and Ellis later shared the renowned trainer, Angelo Dundee.
After losing his world title, Ellis had unsuccessful bouts with Ron Lyle, Joe Bugner and Frazier before retiring in 1975 after injuring his left eye during training. He later developed a form of dementia that is common to boxers.
James Albert Ellis was born Feb. 24, 1940 in Louisville, the son of a Baptist minister, Walter Ellis, and his wife, Elizabeth, who raised the family’s nine children.
He had a strong interest in gospel music from his teenage years and was a featured singer in the Riverview Spiritual Singers, based at the Riverview Baptist Church, where his father became pastor. The group toured and released recordings, even while Ellis pursued boxing.
Ellis first encountered Ali watching him fight on local television in the late 1950s, and decided he could beat Cassius Clay, as Ali was then known, Jeff Ellis said. They often sparred, then became friends.
They met in a North American Boxing Federation championship bout in 1971. While neither fighter was knocked down, the referee stopped the match at 2:10 of the 12 round, awarding a technical knockout victory to Ali. They remained friends in retirement.
“I still talk to Muhammad once a week on the phone and he never, ever, begins our conversation without the words ‘‘Hi, champ,’’ Ellis told the Daily Telegraph in 2003.
Ali, with the help of his wife, Yolanda ‘‘Lonnie’’ Williams, wrote yesterday about Ellis in an e-mailed statement.
‘‘Lonnie and I are very saddened by the loss of our friend Jimmy Ellis,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Great competitors who happen to be great friends are rare. Jimmy Ellis was that to me.’’
In addition to his son Jeff, Ellis’s survivors include another son, James Jr., daughters Jamesetta Wells, Inez Ellis, Mary Ellis and Sonya Ellis, and 10 grandchildren. His wife, the former Mary Etta Williams, died in 2006.
To contact the reporters on this story: Stephen Miller in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org; David Henry in Frankfurt at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org Steven Gittelson
Jimmy Ellis, a Boxer Long in Ali’s Shadow, Dies at 74
By RICHARD GOLDSTEIN
Jimmy Ellis, the onetime sparring partner for Muhammad Ali who captured the heavyweight boxing championship after it had been stripped from Ali for his refusing induction into the armed forces, died on Tuesday in Louisville, Ky. He was 74.
Jimmy Ellis, right, beat Leotis Martin on Aug. 5, 1967, and later won the W.B.A. heavyweight title vacated by Muhammad Ali. Credit Associated Press
But Ellis, a fine boxer with quick hands, made the most of his opportunity. He defeated Leotis Martin and the Argentine Oscar Bonavena and then won a 15-round decision over Jerry Quarry in the championship tournament final in April 1968.
He turned pro in 1961 as a middleweight and also worked as Ali’s sparring partner while fighting on his undercards. With his career stalled three years later, Ellis wrote to Ali’s renowned trainer, Angelo Dundee, asking if Dundee could take him on.
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