Former WBA heavyweight boxing champion of the world and Louisville native Jimmy Ellis has died at age 74. That report comes from his son Jeff who says it happened on Tuesday morning.
Ellis trained at Columbia Gym with Louisville Police officer Joe Martin. Martin also introduced a young Cassius Clay to the sweet science. Clay later because Muhammad Ali. The two men fought twice as amateurs with both boxers logging one win each.
That’s not all Ellis and Ali shared. When Ellis turned pro, he turned to Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee. Dundee because his manager as well.
Ellis and Ali’s destinies remained intertwined when the WBA stripped Ali of their championship when he declined military service in Viet Nam. The WBA set up an 8 man tournament for the vacant title and Ellis was ranked 8th at the time. That meant he would be the underdog in every fight on the way to the belt.
For the second round of the tournament, Ellis fought in front of hometown fans at Freedom Hall where he pummeled Oscar Bonavena to set up the tournament final against Jerry Quarry. In that fight, Elllis took Quarry through 15 rounds to victory.
In his first title defense against Floyd Patterson, Ellis won despite a broken nose and then spent an extended period of time out of the ring over some wrangling by the British Boxing Board of Control that wouldn’t recognize an Ellis bout as a championship fight because it was WBA rather than WBC.
So in February of 1970, Ellis fought Joe Frazier to unify the championships and Frazier got the better of Ellis who had never been on his back as a heavyweight. Frazier floored him twice.
In 1971, Ellis took on Ali, his friend and former sparring mate, for the first time as a professional. To raise the stakes, they were battling for the NABF heavyweight championship. Trainer Dundee chose to work with Ellis because he couldn’t train both men for a contest against each other. During the fight, in which he fought well, Ellis hurt his hand in the fourth round and eventually went down to defeat.
After his fighting career ended when a sparring partner accidentally poked him in the eye, partially blinding him. Ellis remained a Louisvillian, though, by training boxers and organizing softball leagues with Metro Parks. He spent his final years suffering from chronic boxer’s encephalopathy.
In the ring he’s remembered as a good fighter with a strong chin punching power. In the Ville, he’ll be remembered as a champion.
Photo illustration by: Tim Girton