Jimmy Ellis: Boxer who became world heavyweight champion and close friend, sparring partner and ring rival of Muhammad Ali


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Jimmy Ellis had one of boxing’s most curious careers, going from obscure middleweight bruiser to world heavyweight champion during the ring exile of his friend, Muhammad Ali. Ellis was from Louisville, Kentucky, just like Ali, and their lives on both sides of the ropes crossed so often that many people in the boxing business rather cruelly relegated Ellis to the sparring partner, bag carrier and smiling nice guy in Ali’s shadow.

“He was more than just a sparring partner to Ali,” said George Foreman. “He was a good fighter, a natural boxer and he lived his own life. He was not in Ali’s shadow.”

Ellis first went to a boxing gym after watching Ali – or Cassius Clay, as he was then – beat a friend of his in a televised bout. The boys were about 14 at the time. “I watched it and I thought that I could do a better job,” said Ellis. “I guess I was right and I guess I was wrong.”

Ali won their first amateur contest and Ellis won the rematch; the pair became friends from living in the same city and through their shared conflicts in the ring. They would continue to trade punches for nearly 20 years in one of boxing’s longest rivalries.

In 1961 Ellis turned professional and fought as part of Ali’s undercard at the Freedom Hall in their home city. Ali was on his way to the world title after winning gold at the 1960 Olympics while Ellis was a slim light-middleweight. A year later Ellis was in New York fighting on a Sugar Ray Robinson undercard and in 1963 he fought on the same bill when Ali met Henry Cooper at Wembley Stadium. He also fought on the undercard when Ali met Cooper at Highbury in 1966. “I remember Jimmy back then,” said Angelo Dundee, who trained Ali. “He was just a middleweight; he had a quick win in London, nothing special: A nice guy.”

In 1964 Ellis, fighting as a small middleweight and a couple of stone lighter than the lightest of heavyweights, lost three times; his career was in crisis. The transformation of the wayward middleweight to heavyweight champion of the world started in 1965 and, as is to be expected with any boxing tale, there are a couple of different versions.

In one version he has his tonsils out and starts to put on weight; in another he simply eats more. He was invited by Ali around this time to train in Miami and at some point he wrote to Dundee begging for guidance, ending the letter with: “H-E-L-P!” Dundee became his manager and trainer once Ellis joined Ali at the 5th Street gym in Miami.

In 1965, after a six-month break, he fought on. Twenty pounds heavier, he went on an unbeaten run of 12 fights, defeating top heavyweights Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry in a tournament to become the heavyweight champion of the world. The trio of wins remains to this day an impressive reminder of just how good Ellis was.

Before the Quarry fight, when Ellis was a big underdog, he reversed his role as sparring partner to Ali and hired the exiled fighter as his sparring partner, paying him $100 a day, money that Ali desperately needed. “Ali was happy for me when I won the world title,” said Ellis. “We were friends, always friends. I was a Baptist but religion never came between us and he would tell some of his people that if ever they tried to question me.”

Ellis made one defence of his title, beating the former champion Floyd Patterson over 15 rounds in Stockholm. He had been out of action for over a year with a nose injury when lost his heavyweight world title to Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1970. It was a huge fight at the time and attracted 512 requests from the media, a record for the Garden. Dundee pulled Ellis out at the end of the fourth, a decision Ellis tried to dispute. “Gee, Angelo, I was OK,” he said. “I was only put down once. I was a little dazed but I was fine.” Dundee’s reply was priceless: “You were put down twice, but you only remember once. That is why I stopped the fight.” Ellis accepted the loss.

The Frazier fight was in many ways an appetiser for the Fight of the Century between Ali and Frazier at Madison Square Garden a year later. Ali lost that fight over 15 torrid rounds but four months later he was back in the ring in Texas in front of 32,000 people with Ellis in the opposite corner.

Dundee was not in Ali’s corner, which caused an outrage at the time. However, Dundee was a businessman and explained the apparent defection simply: “I’m Muhammad’s trainer and part of his team. But with Jimmy I’m the whole team – in that fight Jimmy was my guy.” Ali was over 30lb heavier and won in the 12th round, taking it easy on his friend in the final seconds. “Fighting my friend was strange but I believed I could win,” Ellis said.

It all ended in 1975 after defeats to Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Joe Bugner, and Frazier in a rematch. “He knew it was time and I wanted him to make that decision,” said Dundee. In retirement Ellis worked in Louisville for the Parks and Recreation Department, a nice guy and one of the very best forgotten champions of the sport.

James Albert Ellis, boxer: born Louisville, Kentucky 24 February 1940; married Mary Etta (died 2006; six children); died Louisville 6 May 2014.