Parallel Lives: Jimmy Ellis and Muhammad Ali

Jimmy Ellis let his fists do the talking. As a result, Ellis was little-known and barely remembered. But his teenage friend and sparring partner, Muhammad Ali, grew into an icon.
|
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
FILE - In this July 27, 1971, file photo, Referee Jay Edson, left, keeps an eye on the fight between Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Ellis, right, in the 12th round of their heavyweight fight in Houston. Ellis, a former heavyweight boxing champion who trained with fellow Louisville fighter Muhammad Ali and squared off against some of his era's best fighters, has died in his hometown Tuesday, May 6, 2014. He was 74. Ellis' brother, Jerry, said the ex-champion died at a Louisville hospital Tuesday after suffering from Alzheimer's disease in recent years. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this July 27, 1971, file photo, Referee Jay Edson, left, keeps an eye on the fight between Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Ellis, right, in the 12th round of their heavyweight fight in Houston. Ellis, a former heavyweight boxing champion who trained with fellow Louisville fighter Muhammad Ali and squared off against some of his era's best fighters, has died in his hometown Tuesday, May 6, 2014. He was 74. Ellis' brother, Jerry, said the ex-champion died at a Louisville hospital Tuesday after suffering from Alzheimer's disease in recent years. (AP Photo/File)

Jimmy Ellis let his fists do the talking.

As a result, Ellis was little-known and barely remembered when he died Tuesday in his hometown of Louisville at age 74. He had been treated for Alzheimer's disease.

His teenage friend and sparring partner, Muhammad Ali, talked all the time and grew into an icon. His wit and charisma spread his reputation far beyond the shrunken world of boxing.

They both had talent as young amateurs in Louisville, where they split two bouts. They were both, at different times, heavyweight champions. But one became a legend, the other a modest, reticent man who volunteered at his church and sang in the choir.

When the poobahs of boxing stripped Ali of his heavyweight title when he refused induction into the armed forces in protest over the war in Vietnam in 1967, the World Boxing Association conceived an eight-man elimination tournament to crown a successor to Ali.

My father, the sports columnist, Red Smith, dismissed the tournament as a "series promoted by the World Boxing Association and Roone Arledge of the American Broadcasting Company to keep Howard Cosell busy." (He rarely passed up an opportunity to needle his neighbor, Cosell.)

Nevertheless, Ellis emerged on top and successfully defended his title against the estimable Floyd Patterson in Stockholm in 1968. He lost it later to Smokin' Joe Frazier.

Finally, in 1971, Ellis got a match against Ali after the Supreme Court remembered the First Amendment and overturned the champ's conviction for draft evasion. Again, Ali grabbed all the headlines, promoting Ellis as one of the best fighters in the world. "To be my sparring partner, you got to be good," he bragged, building the purse. Ali took the fight in the 12th round.

Ellis lived a quiet life after retiring from boxing in 1975. His time in the ring cost him the sight in his left eye and rattled his brains.

"All I wanted to be was a good fighter," he was quoted as saying, "and a good person."

He was both.

TERENCE SMITH is a journalist. His website is terencefsmith.com.

Before You Go

Popular in the Community