Jimmy Ellis worked his way up from middleweight to a heavyweight championship
Marvin Johnson, Michael Spinks, and Jimmy Young.
All vastly underrated, and sadly, somewhat forgotten. Though not by everyone.
There are more of course.
One, from Kentucky, rose to prominence in the heavyweight division, though he had to stuff himself to get there. Nope. Not “The Greatest” although the two met when kids and were trained by the same person.
James “Jimmy” Ellis was born February 24, 1940, to Walter Ellis, a pastor, and his wife, Elizabeth, in Louisville. Raised a Christian, along with nine brothers and sisters, he sang in the church choir. He loved Louisville, considering himself a country boy.
In his teenage years, Ellis, an easy-going kid, worked at a cement-finishing factory. He was inspired to box after watching his close friend, Donnie Hill, lose to Cassius Clay in "Tomorrow’s Champions,” a 1957 amateur tournament.
“I watched it and I thought that I could do a better job,” Ellis said years later.
Ellis sought out Joe Martin, a white Southern police officer who had introduced a 12-year-old Clay to boxing--after noticing the boy crying over a stolen bicycle near a youth center in Louisville. Martin had an eye for talent. Clay and Ellis were his star pupils. The two split a couple of fights and formed a friendship that would last a lifetime. Ellis got into some street fights triggered by racial tensions that gave him the reputation as a hoodlum. He wasn’t looking for trouble, but as soon as it started, he’d end it.
Ellis won 59 of 66 amateur fights. He came within a whisker of making the 1960 Olympic team, losing to eventual gold medalist Wilbert McClure in 1960.
Clay became a star at the Olympic Games, winning the gold in the light heavyweight division. Ellis represented Chicago in Golden Gloves, again losing a middleweight final to Leotis Martin, a loss he avenged later in his career.
Campaigning as a middleweight, Ellis turned professional in 1960, stopping Arley Seifer at Freedom Hall in Louisville. He won his next four fights in succession, before dropping a decision to veteran journeyman Holly Mims. Ellis defeated Mims in a rematch six months later.
In 1962, Ellis, who came to be known as “Jimmy,” moved up in class to face the seventh-ranked contender, Henry Hank. Ellis tried to box, but Hank, with 73 fights under his belt, strafed him with wicked bodyshots.
In round four, Hank moved his attack upstairs. Ellis dripped blood for the remainder of the fight. Still he battled, losing a hard-fought 10 round decision. Ellis won three fights in a row before traveling to New York to face ranking contender Rubin Carter at Madison Square Garden. He hung tough, but was dropped in round five and lost by unanimous decision.
1964 was a pivotal year for Ellis. After losing close decisions to Don Fullmer, and George Benton, his record stood at 15 wins and 5 losses. His boxing career had stalled.
Meanwhile his old friend Clay, who was now known as Muhammad Ali, was sitting on top of the boxing world after upsetting invincible heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. It was time for a change. Ellis reluctantly dropped trainer Bud Bruner. It wasn’t personal. Ellis liked Bruner, but knew it was time to move on.
He contemplated quitting boxing, but his supportive wife Mary vetoed that. She had an idea. With the blessing of Ellis, she wrote a letter to Ali’s manager, signed by Ellis, asking Angelo Dundee to train and manage him.
The last words on the letter were P.S. H-e-e-e-e-l-p.
An intrigued Dundee responded, telling Ellis to come to Fifth Street Gym in Miami, where Ali, trained. Ellis was ecstatic. This was his chance. But there were inherent risks. Ellis had six mouths to feed. He had to give up his full-time job as a concrete finisher. He didn’t particularly like the job, but it was steady, and nobody was starving.
Mary said forget the job.
Ellis was going to Miami. He weighed around 150 pounds and was, according to Dundee, suffering chronic tonsillitis. He needed Ellis healthy before he could even begin to train him. He also needed him to gain weight.
In his letter, he had told Ellis that to make real money, he needed to add pounds. Mary tried to fatten him up before he left. Ellis debuted the night of May 25, 1965, on the undercard of the Ali vs. Liston rematch.
“I just fine-tuned him,” said Dundee. "He had a lot of talent."
Ellis easily dispatched Joe Blackwood. He wouldn’t lose another fight for five years.
By 1967, Ellis had moved up to the light heavyweight division. He raised eyebrows when he starched Jimmy Persol in the opening stanza, his third consecutive first round knockout. The win was his seventh in a row under Dundee, with four knockouts. Dundee liked him fighting as a light heavy, but Ellis had other ideas. He wanted to move up to heavyweight. This was a chance to be known as more than Ali’s sparring partner – and make some big money.
Dundee wasn’t sure, but acquiesced after Ellis knocked the stuffing out of Persol. When the World Boxing Association gleefully stripped Ali of his heavyweight crown for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army, Ellis joined fellow contenders Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, George Chuvalo, Karl Mildenberger, Thad Spencer, Jerry Quarry, and Joe Frazier, in a do-or-die tournament to replace the deposed Ali. Frazier, the top-ranked contender, declined an invitation. Leotis Martin was chosen to replace Frazier.
Ellis was a heavy underdog when he faced his old amateur opponent Leotis Martin on August 25, 1967, at the Houston Astrodome in Houston, TX. Ellis wasn’t receiving much love from the sports writers. Many still considered him a blown-up middleweight, who lacked stamina.
Martin, who entered the contest with only one loss, was expected to knock out Ellis inside of five rounds. Ellis had other ideas. He’d start fast and use his advantages in foot and hand speed. He popped Martin with jabs and wicked hooks. Martin did better in round two, but Ellis was back in control a few minutes later. He opened a cut and played target practice with it. By round four, Martin’s face was crimson. He bled until the referee stopped the contest in the ninth. The ringside critics were stunned.
Four months later, Ellis was again the underdog. His opponent, Oscar Bonavena, outweighed him by 14 pounds. The venue was Freedom Hall in Louisville. Bonavena, crude and rude, had given Frazier hell the previous year. He’d advanced in the tournament by smashing Karl Mildenberger for 12 rounds.
Conventional thinking held he’d do the same to Ellis. That way of thinking went out the window when the inspired Ellis floored Bonavena with a razor-sharp right in round three. Bonavena looked just as surprised as the critics. Ellis cemented his victory by sending the bull-like Bonavena to the canvas in round 10.
Ellis was now one fight away from capturing the WBA’s version of the heavyweight championship of the world. To achieve this, he’d have to defeat a heavyweight from California loaded with talent, but prone to erratic and sub-par performances.
Jerry Quarry had lost once in 27 fights when he faced Ellis in 1968. Ellis was again a substantial underdog. 11,000 boxing fans showed up to witness Ellis flash guile and speed over a listless Quarry, winning the 15 rounder by unanimous decision. His jab was his best friend. His performance was artistic, though it was reported a few months later that Quarry had fought with a broken back.
Jimmy Ellis was the WBA heavyweight champion. Many called him a paper champion. His first defense was against aging former champion Floyd Patterson. Ellis was judged the winner, though many didn’t agree. He certainly didn’t look like the one, exiting the ring with a broken nose and cut over his right eye.
Ellis faced his personal waterloo when he fought Joe Frazier in "The Big Apple" in 1970. Ellis did pretty well in the early going, keeping his distance and landing. But none of the blows bothered Frazier. He was in pure “Smokin” mode by round four. His big left hook floored Ellis twice for a nine count. Somehow, Ellis got up, but Dundee stopped the fight before round five.
Ellis won three fights in a row, including a decision over iron-chinned George Chuvalo before facing Ali in 1971.
Ali, with a weight advantage of 24 pounds, hadn’t fought since being bested by Frazier in “The Fight of the Century.” The bout was closely contested for a few rounds until Ali hurt Ellis badly with a right hand in round four. Ali won by stoppage in round 12. The victory was huge for Ali who couldn’t afford another loss. Ellis was devastated. He had 16 fights after his loss to Ali, losing five, including being knocked out by Ernie Shavers, who he had hurt, and losing a rematch to Frazier.
A poke in the eye during sparring ended his career when he was 34. The eye stopped working completely a few years later.
His years in the ring weren’t kind to Jimmy Ellis. He suffered for years from the dreaded pugilistic dementia, before passing away in 2014.
Ellis never completely escaped the shadow of Ali, but who could?
He mixed with many of the top heavyweights of his era, defeating such men Patterson, Quarry, Chuvalo, Martin, Billy Daniels, and Tony Davila.
Paper doesn’t win fights. Ability does.