"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" - - - - 5/10/14
Remembering: Jimmy Ellis
As a child in the 60's, I remember my Dad watching fights on television--especially on ABC. I recall him having the utmost respect for a fighter from Louisville--in this case, one NOT named Clay (to be referred to as 'Ali' for the remainder of this writing). It was Jimmy Ellis, an undersized heavyweight who had grown up with the future Muhammad Ali in Kentucky and sparred with him, too. I can only assume my Dad admired Ellis' quiet, classy nature--along with the toughness he demonstrated while going up against the "bigger guys" throughout his career. Yeah, as I grew a bit older and became more familiar with the boxing game, one thing became very obvious: Jimmy Ellis was a guy who was difficult NOT to like.
The son of a preacher who worked for his father's cement-finishing business during his teens, Jimmy Ellis' attention steered toward the "sweet science" in the 1950's; he dreamed of beating his friend Ali someday--maybe even becoming heavyweight champion of the world down the road. He turned pro in 1961 as a middleweight but understood that the "big bucks" were to be made in the heavyweight division. He'd enlist the help of one Angelo Dundee--who also worked with Ali--and ultimately found himself as a competitor in the WBA heavyweight championship tournament in 1967-'68 (if you watched and REMEMBERED it, that qualifies you as a MAJOR boxing fan). It was staged in order to determine a champion after the title had been stripped from Ali for his refusing induction into the U.S. military. The quick-handed, tough-chinned Ellis took advantage of a life-long dream--defeating Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena, and Jerry Quarry on his way to becoming heavyweight champion of the world. He'd later defend his title against the great Floyd Patterson in a fight held in Sweden. To Jimmy, his immense accomplishments in the late 60's allowed him to somewhat free himself from the shadow of the more popular, inactive Ali. Mind you, that wasn't his GOAL; it was more of a reward to himself--a way of appreciating years of hard work and sacrifice. Yes, Jimmy Ellis, from that point on, could always be called "Champ"--although he never had a problem just being James Albert Ellis.
Ellis would lose his title to the brawling Joe Frazier in 1970--then be defeated in 12 rounds by his former Louisville friend in 1971 after Ali's conviction for draft evasion was overturned. Many say that Jimmy was undersized/overmatched in both bouts--which is difficult to deny. Regardless, he fought with a champion's heart at ALL times--and that was good enough for Ellis and his handlers. Jimmy would never fight for a title again and retire in 1975 shortly after another loss to Frazier (his overall record was 40-12-1 w/24 KO's), but his own legacy had been stamped on the boxing world. Undoubtedly, he goes down in history as one of the most "classy" champions--one who valued sportsmanship more than most of his fellow fighters. Yeah, I can now see clearly why my Dad admired and liked the guy so much.
The world lost Jimmy Ellis last week at the age of 74 in Louisville; he truly had been in the "fight of his life"--battling Alzheimer's disease in recent years. He died quietly--his obituary being just a small blurb in most newspapers' sport sections; for some reason, I think Jimmy would have wanted it that way. But his impact wasn't lost on everyone. My "Monday Night Sports Talk" co-host Tony DeAngelo--a huge boxing aficionado for decades--had these words to say about Ellis: "Jimmy Ellis was always a personable gentleman--very honest and polite with the press. In many ways, he was like the Gerald Ford of boxing. What I mean by that is, like Ford, he brought stability to his job after his predecessor was the lead act in a three-ring-circus. My best memory of Ellis was the Patterson bout in Stockholm in 1968. Here, Jimmy had to beat Floyd--a beloved man in Sweden--AND the entire crowd. He won a disputed decision, but what was truly amazing was the sportsmanship and courtesy each fighter showed toward one another--that is, when they weren't trying to beat each other's BRAINS out." I also asked N.Y Post boxing writer George Willis about the legacy that Jimmy Ellis carved out: "Jimmy Ellis' talent was kinda lost among the careers of Frazier and Ali; he never really got the credit he deserved. These days, he'd surely be the longest reigning heavyweight."
In his later days, Ellis gave back to the sport he loved; he trained fighters. He also worked for the Louisville Parks/Rec. Dept. and was very active in his Baptist church in Louisville (not surprisingly, he and his wife sang in the church choir). In an interview conducted 10 years ago, Jimmy Ellis told the Washington Times, "I was a smaller heavyweight (about 190 pounds), but could fight the big guys. I'm proud of what I did, but all I ever wanted was to be a good fighter and a good person." Allow me to put a slight spin on those words, Mr. Ellis: You were a VERY good fighter and even a BETTER person. I'll always choose to remember Jimmy Ellis as an immensely classy individual who just happened to pick up a championship belt along the way.
Rest in peace, "Champ"; you'll surely be missed.