Ellis, Jimmy 1940–
Jimmy Ellis 1940–
For nearly two years Jimmy Ellis was the heavyweight champion of the world. He reached the height of his career in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an era dominated by superstars such as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Though often overshadowed by these legendary boxers, Ellis held his own against each of them. He once beat Ali as an amateur, and he was one of the few boxers ever to get up and keep fighting after receiving the full brunt of Frazier’s smoking left hook. “He wasn’t an overpowering boxer, and he was a small heavyweight… but Jimmy Ellis has to be mentioned along with the great champions,” a former colleague of Ellis’s told The Courier-Journal. “He never ducked anybody. When he fought, he came to fight.”
James Albert Ellis was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on February 24, 1940. His father Henry Ellis worked as a cement finisher, while his mother Elizabeth stayed home raising Ellis and his eight siblings. At Central High School, Ellis excelled in athletics, particularly basketball. “He was a great basketball player,” his wife Mary told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). She would know. It was basketball that brought she and her future husband together. “We lived in the same neighborhood and he used to play basketball with my brother,” Mary recalled. “I saw him and he saw me and that was it. Love at first sight.” Ellis was 16 at the time, Mary 15. Two years later they were married. “We just wanted to get married and it seemed like it would take so long so we decided to just do it, we decided to get married on December 25, 1958.1 said he can’t forget it since it is on Christmas Day,” Mary recalled to CBB.
About the time that Ellis met his wife, he started to box. “I was around 15 or 16 and I would see boxing on television and I just wanted to do it,” he told CBB. One local amateur match really got his interest. A friend of his was beaten by Louisville rising star Muhammad Ali. Back then Ali was still known as Cassius Clay, but to Ellis he was just a “chump.” “I thought I could beat that chump so I started boxing at a couple of gyms in town,” Ellis told CBB. The first gym he trained at was the same one where Ali was developing his famous footwork and screaming punches. Soon the two amateurs met in the ring. Ali, with a few years experience on top of his
At a Glance…
Born James Albert Ellis on February 24, 1940, in Louisville, KY; married Mary Etta Ellis, December 25, 1958; children: Jamesetta (Penny), James Jr., Inez Elaine, Mary, Sonya, Jeffrey. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Professional boxer, late 1950s-75; Louisville Metropolitan Parks and Recreation Department, city worker, 1975-1990s; boxing trainer, 1990s-.
Awards: Golden Gloves Association of America, Amateur Title, 1958-59; World Boxing Association, World Heavyweight Title, 1968-71.
Addresses: Home —Louisville, KY.
natural talent, took Ellis down easily. Ellis quickly gained ground, and the second time they met, it was Ellis who triumphed, taking out the future legend in three two-minute rounds. Eventually the two young boxers became sparring partners and finally friends. “I fell in with him. He was fun to be around,” Ellis told South Coast Today. “The one thing we talked about was boxing. We’d go sit down and get something to eat and we’d be talking about who was going to be champion, who could beat who. He’d say, ‘Ain’t nobody can beat me.’ And hardly anybody at the time could beat him.”
After winning a Golden Gloves title in the late 1950s, Ellis began fighting professionally as a middleweight. Between 1961 and 1964 he racked up an impressive 15 wins to five losses. Six of his wins were the results of knock-outs. However his career was going nowhere. With four children to care for, he began working with his father as a cement finisher. He also became depressed. “I wanted him to be happy,” Mary told The Courier-Journal “He wasn’t happy, and Jimmy was always a happy person. I had to do something.” What she did was encourage Ellis to write a letter to famed trainer Angelo Dundee. At his Miami-based gym Dundee oversaw the training for several top boxers, including Ali. Ellis needed Dundee. “I knew I could fight,” he told I was a good boxer. I just wanted a chance to prove myself.” Mary wanted it too and just before sealing the letter she added her own plea, “…at the bottom I wrote in capital letters ‘HELP’ with lots of exclamation points behind it,” she told CBB.
Dundee readily agreed to take Ellis on, and within a few days Ellis was on a plane to Florida. After that “I started doing real good,” Ellis told CBB. He beefed up and moved into the heavyweight division and began perfecting his form. Small for a heavyweight, Ellis made up for in technique what he lacked in size. “Ellis was a slick boxer with sharp reflexes. He had a good left hand and a sneaky right. He also had loads of courage,” boxing analyst Jim Amato wrote on the Saddo Boxing website. Between 1965 and 1967 Ellis won every match he had, eight in all—five of which ended with first round knock-outs. Meanwhile, his old buddy Ali had become a star. After winning the World Boxing Association (WBA) heavyweight championship in 1964, Ali successfully defended his title six times. When he called himself “the Greatest” few disagreed. Then, in 1967, as the Vietnam War raged on, Ali refused to be inducted into the military saying in an oft-repeated quote, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” He was convicted of draft evasion and the WBA stripped him of his title.
In 1967 the WBA invited eight top contenders to box off in a tournament to fill the empty heavyweight championship slot. Ellis was among them. Joe Frazier, the undefeated Olympic gold medallist widely considered the top boxer in the country, had declined the invitation, leaving a shot at the title wide open. Ellis came out strong, winning a nine-round match with Leotis Martin in August. He next fought Argentinean boxer Oscar Bonevena. Amato described the December 1967 match on the Boxing 911 website: “Ellis in one of his career best performances dropped the usually durable Bonevena twice en route to a convincing points win.” Ellis was going to the championships. Mary was right there with him. “I got someone to watch my babies and went out to California,” she told CBB. “It was great. It was so exciting.” The April 1968 match had Ellis up against Jerry Quarry, who was favored to win. However, after 15 rounds, the judges called the match in Ellis’s favor. Ellis became the new heavyweight champion of the world. Back then the award wasn’t a belt but a trophy—a big trophy. “We had to buy a ticket for the trophy to get it home on the plane,” Mary told CBB.
After returning home to Louisville as the new world champ, Ellis’s life stayed unusually quiet. He recalled to CBB, “Things didn’t change. I was happy. I was the champion. I had a good time.” Controversy was brewing in the boxing arena, however. Frazier was knocking out opponents worldwide, prompting many boxing associations to name him the heavyweight champion of the world. Meanwhile, Ali continued to hold the public’s attention, and many still considered him the real champ. As the argument swelled, Ellis tried to defend his title. In a September 1968 match in Sweden against former champion Floyd Patterson, Ellis was awarded a controversial win after 15 rounds. Due to a string of bad luck, it would be his only successful defense of the title. “First I’d signed to fight [Henry] Cooper at Wembley, but he got injured. Next I was due to defend against [George] Chuvalo in Toronto, and he fell ill. Then Gregorio Paralta pulled out at 10 o’clock the night before our bout in Buenos Aires,” Ellis recalled to The Daily Telegraph. “That happened five times before I entered the ring against Smokin’ Joe.”
“Smokin’ Joe” was Joe Frazier and on February 16, 1970, Ellis finally met him in Madison Square Garden. The bout was billed as the heavyweight unification match—only one world champion would emerge. Though Frazier was favored to win, Ellis surprised many observers by coming out strong in the first two rounds. Then in the third round Ellis caught the full-on fury of Frazier’s famed left hook. Though he was sent flying into the ropes, he recovered enough to make it to the end of the round. In the fourth round Frazier landed a right-handed blow that knocked Ellis on his face. Ellis again recovered, just in time to take on another one of Frazier’s furious left hooks. The hit was described as “the most murderous legal blow ever unleashed” in The Daily Telegraph. It sent Ellis on his back and most thought the match over. Somehow Ellis got up before the countdown was out. Boxing aficionados still wonder how Ellis did it, as very few boxers could survive one of Frazier’s left hooks, much less two. Back in his corner trainer Dundee tried to revive Ellis with smelling salts. Instead of inhaling, Ellis grabbed the bottle and took a swig. “I couldn’t sleep for six months after that,” he recalled to The Daily Telegraph. The fight was over, however. Dundee wouldn’t let Ellis fight a fifth round, and Frazier became the new world champion.
Ellis continued to fight impressively into the 1970s. He scored 13 victories, 12 of those with knock-outs. During that time he lost six matches, including a much-publicized bout with his old friend Ali. In 1971 Ali was allowed to fight again, and he and Ellis met in the ring in July of that year. The prize was the North American Boxing Federation heavyweight title. Though Ellis was in excellent form, Ali was much bigger and he knocked Ellis out in the 12th round. The match didn’t dampen the men’s friendship. “I still talk to Muhammad once a week on the phone and he never, ever begins our conversation without the words ‘Hi, champ,’” Ellis told The Daily Telegraph in 2003.
In 1975 Ellis was partially blinded after a sparring partner accidentally poked him in the left eye. “It was tough. Mentally, I didn’t want to retire when I did,” he told The Courier-Journal. “But physically, it was time to get out of the ring.” Mary confirmed to CBB, “It was an accident, but Jimmy didn’t complain. He never complained about anything.” At 35, Ellis stepped out of the ring and took a job with the Louisville Parks and Recreation department. He also settled back into home life which by then included six children. “I would’ve had a lot more children but Jimmy was always traveling,” Mary told CBB. Ellis also began to spend more time singing with the Riverview Spiritual Singers, a Baptist choir he and Mary have belonged to since the beginning of his boxing career.
Ellis has also kept active in the Louisville boxing scene, helping to train several up-and-comers. “It would be nice to have somebody become a world champion,” he told The Courier-Journal. “But I just like to stay involved.” By 2003 he had hooked up with trainer/promoter Howard Gosser to once again take on a boxer named Ali. The young boxer was Ibn Ali, nephew of Muhammad Ali whose first major bout was scheduled for March of 2004. Ellis planned on being there, out of the ring, but definitely not out of the game.
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), September 14, 1997.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 30, 2003.
“Ali Remembered as More than Screen Image,” South Coast Today, www.s-t.com/daily/12-01/12-31-01/cl2sp097.htm (January 30, 2004).
“The Eight Man Elimination Tournament,” Boxing 911, www.boxing911.com/eight_man_elimination_tournament.htm (January 30, 2004).
“Heavyweight Unification: A History,” Boxing Monthly, www.boxing-monthly.co.uk/content/99 03/two. htm (January 30, 2004).
“Jimmy Ellis,” Boxrec: The Internet Boxing Records Archi ve, www.boxrec.com/boxer_display.php?boxer_id=016178 (January 30, 2004).
“Jimmy Ellis” Saddo Boxing, www.saddoboxing.com/ boxing-article/Jimmy-EUis.html (January 30, 2004).
“Jimmy Ellis, Noted Louisvillians” Go To Louisville, www.gotolouisville.com/MultiCulture/Visitors/in-dex.cfm?action=noted (January 30, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Jimmy and Mary Hlis on February 13, 2004.
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