Boxing in the city of Louisville begins and ends with one name: Muhammad Ali, and in the press generated by Cassius Clay the legend of Jimmy Ellis is often overlooked. Perhaps not as prolific as Ali, Ellis offered a solid in-ring and out of ring presence that made him world champion and much more.
Inspired as a child by a young Clay, Ellis saw his friend Donnie Hall go toe to toe with the Louisville Slugger early in Ali’s career, Hall lost but it was this event that began Ellis’ desire to box, paying his dues as an Amateur Ellis was certainly a noteworthy contender winning the Golden Gloves championship early in his career.
A career which seemed in large part to run parallel to Ali, Ellis went pro in 1961, where he compiled a 15-5 record and turned plenty of heads in the process in the middleweight division. His strong demeanor and heavy handed strikes made him a fan favorite as the golden age of boxing began.
It wasn’t until Ellis started working with Angelo Dundee, Ali’s manager, that people began to get a full view of his talents though. Fighting before Ali in several cards Dundee established Ellis has a possible successor to Ali’s crown, now a heavyweight Ellis had the potential to set the world on fire just the same as his hometown peer. The irony being that prior to turning pro Ellis and Clay, both amateurs at the time, had actually fought twice, each winning one of the bouts.
Despite growing fan fare controversies swirled around professional boxing when in the mid 60’s Ali’s boxing license was revoked after refusing to enter the Vietnam war citing religious reasons. This meant that the current championship belt had no holder and so in response an eight man tournament was begun, the victor getting the belt formerly held by Ali.
The majority of the top contenders were invited, however “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, Ali’s biggest rival and a fighter considered by many to be the favorite decided to opt out of the tournament, perhaps showing solidarity with Ali’s stance.
Without a clear cut favorite the tournament for the title seemed wide open, and Jimmy Ellis saw this as his opportunity, so after two victories he found himself in the championship against Jerry Quarry who he defeated by decision, meaning the WBA heavyweight title never left the hands of a Louisvillian.
As a champ Ellis defeated “Pretty Boy” Floyd Patterson again in a decision and it wasn’t until Frazier stepped up some time later that Ellis would lose the title.
Still Ellis was considered a major contender winning his next three fights, this leading to a rubber match between Ali and Ellis, where Ali defeated his rival from years ago in the twelfth round. Following this tight match up Ellis found victories in his next eight fights.
After his retirement Ellis began working with the Louisville Parks Department, training future fighters. With his civic integrity and raw talent Jimmy Ellis is and always has been a sports legend of the Ville.
Photo Courtesy of Boxing Republic
The later rounds of the Ellis/Quarry fight