Jack Slack: Remembering Jimmy Ellis

Photo by Rolls Press/Popperfoto

Yesterday we lost Jimmy Ellis, former world heavyweight champion. What Ellis is most commonly remembered for is his peculiar relationship with the great Muhammad Ali which had a profound effect on both men's careers. It is sad that one can read an account of Muhammad Ali's life—and there are many—with little mention of Ellis, yet Ellis' story is inseparable from Ali's.

Ellis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and was introduced to boxing after watching his friend Donnie Hall lose a bout to a young Cassius Clay. Ellis began training under Joe Martin, who—in a now legendary yarn—became the man who started Cassius Clay in the game after finding the young boy crying over a stolen bicycle outside of a youth center.

One could certainly be inspired to take up boxing at this young man's gym.

Ellis, despite moving to heavyweight eventually, was never a big man. He began his career as a middleweight and showed decent skill. Ellis' first notable fight at middleweight was a meeting with Ruben “Hurricane” Carter in 1964. This was fresh off of Carter's starching of the great Emile Griffith in one round. Ellis took Carter the distance but dropped a decision. It was a respectable performance, as all of Ellis' losses were. But posting a record of 1-3 in 1964, with the sole win coming over a 5-2 Joe Spencer, Ellis knew he had to change things up if he wanted to make a decent run at becoming a world class boxer.

Ellis decided to write to Angelo Dundee in Florida. Dundee was a unique type of trainer, he didn't tend to manufacture fighters from the ground up, but if he was given a talent he could develop that talent better than almost anyone else. He was a friend, a counsellor, and a tactician, but where he really excelled was in understanding his fighters.

Dundee showed incredible guile and a (positive) manipulative streak. From his famous show of tough love and utterance of “you're blowing it, son” to Sugar Ray Leonard which kicked the young welterweight into overdrive against Tommy Hearns, to his subtle pandering to Ali's ego to produce better results. The story goes that in training for Joe Frazier, Ali would throw perhaps a single uppercut in a round of sparring, then go back to the corner and Dundee—rather than chastising the brash heavyweight—would say “I love the way you threw that uppercut. Best uppercut I've ever seen.”. Ali, ever the egotist, would respond to this and throw dozens in the next round.

Dundee, always on the lookout for top talent, and for quality sparring partners, brought Ellis in and had him working with Ali. Dundee tacked Ellis' fights onto the undercards of Ali's main events and brought the young man attention which he otherwise wouldn't have been afforded. By 1966, Ellis was fighting at heavyweight and picking up some decent wins. After an obvious showcase match against Tommy Sims (1-5 in his previous 6), Ellis shocked everyone by starching the 17-3 Johnny Persol in one round at Madison Square Garden.

Meanwhile, Ali—by then the heavyweight champion—was knee deep in legal troubles over his refusal to be drafted to the Vietnam War. Stripped of his title and out of boxing for the foreseeable future, it was time to crown a new heavyweight champion. While Ali had unified the titles in his bout against Ernie Terrell, the governing bodies disagreed about how to pass on their belts. The World Boxing Association did the most sensible thing and set up an elimination tournament, inviting the top eight heavyweights in the world.

One man conspicuously absent from the tournament was the consensus number one heavyweight after Ali, Joe Frazier. Frazier opted out of the brutal tournament line up because the New York State Athletic Commission offered him a fight for their vacant heavyweight belt against Buster Mathis. Frazier's intention was to take the fight with Mathis, avoid the gruelling tournament, and use the belt as leverage for a unification match against the winner of the WBA tournament.

Ellis, ranked eighth in the world, had gotten into the tournament by the skin of his teeth. There wasn't a single match in the tournament where he wasn't the betting underdog. But the thing about tournaments is that they bring the best out in fighters you wouldn't expect. For one year, from 1967 to 1968 as the tournament progressed, Ellis looked sublime.

Now Ellis wasn't an all around brilliant boxer. He had a lovely jab (as you would expect from someone working with Dundee and Ali regularly) which was often stiffer than Ali's famous flicking jab, and Ellis owned a powerful, looping right hand. But Ellis wasn't a volume puncher like Ali, and while he had pop he often had trouble finding his right hand cleanly, further more he would out jab opponents but fade in later rounds.

Against Leotis Martin, in the opening round of the tournament, Ellis looked decent. He jabbed at Martin each time the latter stepped in, and he opened Martin's face up with these jabs. His right hand, which he normally threw overhand after a double jab, rarely found the mark, but by the ninth round Martin could hardly see through the blood coming from his face. The fight was called off, which was great for Ellis because he was slowing considerably, and Ellis advanced to the next round.

In the next round, Ellis had his finest showing of the tournament. A significant underdog against the hard punching Oscar Bonavena (who would give Ali a damn hard fight one Ali's return), Ellis put on a clinic. In addition to his lovely counter jab and offensive jab, Ellis had a skill which very few fighters cultivate to its full potential. Ellis could hit hard while stepping back.

Ellis lands a stiff jab, then lands the familiar Ali-esque right hook over the jab.

Throughout the fight Jimmy Ellis snapped away with jabs, but did his best back when Bonavena charged him. Ellis would step back with his right foot as he brought his right shoulder forward into the punch allowing Bonavena to run onto it. Muhammad Ali was a master at this (perhaps it was a Dundee speciality?) and more recently the former UFC heavyweight champion, Junior Dos Santos attempted it time and again in his bouts with Cain Velasquez.

Against Bonaveda.

Here's an especially beautiful example with the back step against the great Joe Frazier.

Landing his double jab to overhand in the third round, Ellis momentarily dropped the Argentine banger. The bout continued with Ellis picking Bonavena apart, but around the ninth round Ellis started to fade as he had against Martin. Bonavena stepped in and poured it on, Ellis ate some viscious left hooks, but as Bonavena rushed him to the ropes, Ellis turned Bonavena and hammered him with a left hook while stepping backwards. A beautiful spur of the moment punch and one which Bonavena ran face first onto!

Reminiscent of Georges Carpentier's famous “Waltz”, where he would push an opponent past him and whack them as they turned.

Muhammad Ali fought an almost unforgettably awful bout against Bonaveda on his return from exile in 1970. I say almost unforgettably awful because Ali managed to wipe the memory of how dire his performance was with a back stepping left hook in the 15th round which cleaned Bonaveda's clock just as Ellis had almost done in the ninth round three years earlier.

In the final of the tournament, Ellis met the hard nosed Jerry Quarry. Quarry would later give Ali tremendous trouble, and he was 26-1 when he met Ellis. The fight was a chore to watch, but the story of it was that Quarry couldn't get past Ellis' jab.

Ellis showed some of the familiar Ali looks, as much as you'd expect to see from someone who trained with Ali every day. The low hands, the head feints, and the hand behind the head when bum rushed.

Here's a nice little counter to a rush from Quarry, Ellis catches behind Quarry's head, feels the punch coming and ducks out of there.

After picking up the win over Quarry, Ellis defended his title against the ageing Floyd Patterson and won a close decision which left many with a bitter taste in their mouths. When he finally met Joe Frazier in a unification bout with the WBC belt thrown in, the story of the bout was that Ellis just wasn't strong enough or accurate enough to keep Frazier off of him.

We all know that Frazier ate punches for breakfast, but he moved his head constantly, and as soon as a punch missed he was up on you with his hooks and his head in your chest. Or as George Foreman put it “If you hit him he liked it, and if you knocked him down you only made him mad”. In Ali's bouts with Frazier he was forced to flurry, then hold, but Ellis couldn't do that. Ellis wasn't a volume puncher, nor was he strong in the clinch.

The first two rounds Ellis looked better than ever before. He landed good jabs, and his chopping right hand was finding the mark like never before.

He took the first round easily, and looked good in the second. But Frazier could take the best punches, and he only got stronger as the fight progressed. Howard Cossell once articulated that Frazier had “never won a first round in his life”, but he always got his man in the end.

Ducking in behind his elbows in that familiar cross guard, Frazier would let punches miss him, roll off his forearms, crash into his elbows, or he would simply take them. In fact the first few times Frazier got to the inside he didn't even try to do much, he just let Ellis try to push him away. By the fourth round, Ellis couldn't keep Frazier off him.

Here Ellis lands his best punches, but can't keep Frazier off of him. Frazier was a relentless force and everything you gave him just opened you up for his return flurries.

By the fifth round, Ellis was more exhausted than in the tenth round of his previous performances and Frazier was able to put Ellis away. It was the first time Ellis had been stopped, and Frazier was the first man to knock him down.

There is a tendency in the boxing world to revise history and call Frazier the best of a bad crop of heavyweights, writing off his winning the world heavyweight title as down to Ali's exile. The truth is that Frazier was an all time great. There has yet to be a heavyweight who could in-fight and power punch like him and carry it into the later rounds. Frazier was truly unique and there was certainly no shame losing to him.

The issue was not that Jimmy Ellis was a paper champion, it was that he was a good fighter who met a truly great fighter and who also happened to be a stylistic nightmare for him.

A year later, Ellis met his old training partner and friend, Muhammad Ali in the ring. The two had met twice as amateurs, and split the wins one a piece. In this bout though, the difference in size and ability was obvious—Ali came in at 215, Ellis came in at 191. Much is made of Ali's slowing during his time off, but he was still actively training and had gained nearly fifteen pounds of muscle. It is easy to forget just how big Ali was because of his grace, but he dwarfed men like Ellis and Bob Foster who were really just gangly light heavyweights.

Ellis was in with a bigger, stronger man, and a man who could regularly go fifteen rounds where Ellis would fade. Ellis had met Ali at his fastest, as a young man and an amateur, but he had nothing for Ali now. Ali stopped Ellis in the 12th round with almost a minute of unanswered jabs and right straights.

Fighting is a hard business. If you want to spar with the best, you end up in the gym and making friends with future opponents. The fight between Ali and Ellis was perhaps hardest on their trainer, Angelo Dundee, who for the first time since he began working with Ali, wasn't in Ali's corner for the Ellis fight. Instead, Dundee, perhaps seeing the man who would need more help, was on the other side of the ring with Jimmy Ellis. Dundee returned to Ali's corner in the next bout, and no harm was done to their friendship, but the pasting Ali was forced to put on Ellis had to hurt both men.

Perhaps the most interesting point about their entwined paths was that Muhammad Ali's career needed the win over Ellis. Ali had looked awful against Bonaveda and Quarry, then been battered and knocked down against Joe Frazier. He was rusty, and he finally brought back some of the old magic against Ellis. The Ellis win gave Ali the New York State Athletic Commission title, and allowed him to revive his career. Ali's most memorable fights came after he beat Ellis. If Ellis had out pointed Ali, Ali could have slid from relevance and we might not remember him as the greatest icon in sports history.

Jimmy Ellis passed away yesterday at the age of 74. The most recent in a line of great heavyweights from that era we have lost including Joe Frazier, Ron Lyle and Kenny Norton. He was a flawed fighter, but he accomplished great things, and I am saddened by the lack of attention that his passing has received. He lived his professional life perhaps in the shadow of Ali, but anyone who can win a world heavyweight title does it on their own. His friend wasn't in the ring with him that night with Jerry Quarry, or Oscar Benaveda, or Joe Frazier, but was shouting “jab!” and “lean on him!” from the sidelines.


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Jack Slack: Fighting Motives Part 1