Jimmy Ellis : The Forgotten Champ

When people think of a former World Heavyweight Champion they think of the greats like Muhammad Ali , Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Max Schmeling and the list goes on. One name you won’t hear though is that of Jimmy Ellis.

Ellis , a native of Louisville,  Kentucky, started boxing as an amateur after watching a friend box the one and only Muhammad Ali on a televised amateur show called “Tomorrow’s Champions”. After watching his friend ( Donnie Hall) lose, Jimmy Ellis thought he had what it took to be a fighter. He followed his friend to Louisville’s Columbia Boxing Gym where he started his amateur career under the coaching of a police officer called Joe Martin. Ellis was no doubt a talent, notching up a very impressive amateur record winning 59 of his 66 fights. He fought Ali twice as an amateur, losing the first and winning the second. He was a Golden Gloves Champion and no doubt was a big prospect as he turned pro in 1961.

Ellis turned pro as a middleweight in what some consider the greatest boxing era of all time. He was trained by Bud Bruner and notched up a record of 15-5 (6KOs). Looking at this record now you might not think its such a good record, well let me tell you who those five losses came from, they came from some of the greatest middleweights at the time. His first defeat as a professional came from top middleweight contender Holly Mims in his sixth professional bout. The infamous Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter was responsible for one of those losses after defeating Ellis in a 10 round unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden. Ellis bounced back from that win to KO Joe Spencer in one round. But suffered back to back losses to Don Fullmer and the great George Benton.

In 1964 Ellis had lost 3 out 4 fights and decided to move on from Bruner but always respected him and they remained friends after the split. After sending a letter to legendary trainer Angelo Dundee who was training Muhammad Ali at the time, Dundee agreed to train and manage Ellis’ career. Ellis fought on nearly all of the Ali undercards and became a sparring partner for “the greatest”.

In 1966 Ellis was fighting as a heavyweight, and was unbeaten with Dundee. With eight straight wins to his credit Ellis was looking unstoppable as a heavyweight. When Ali was infamously stripped of his world title the WBA held an eight man elimination tournament to see who would be the next World Heavyweight Champion. Ellis ranked eight in the world at the time got an invitation to the tournament. Joe Frazier who at the time was ranked 2nd, declined the invitation and went on to win the New York Athletic Commission World Heavyweight Title after knocking Buster Mathis out after 11 rounds.

So with Ali stripped of his title the tournament to decide the next WBA World Heavyweight Champion got underway. Ellis was the underdog and very few people would give him a chance, his first fight was against Leotis Martin in August 1967 in Houston, Texas. The referee stopped that bout in the 9th round after very heavy bleeding with Martin’s nose possibly broken. Ellis would then return home to Louisville to battle Oscar Bonavena. Again Ellis would go into the fight the heavy underdog, Bonavena was well known for his iron chin, But Ellis put him down in the 3rd and 10th round and went through to the tournament final on a 12 round unanimous decision.

This would be Ellis’ finest hour. In Oakland, California on April 27th 1968 he faced the dangerous Jerry Quarry. Not the most entertaining of fights, Ellis used his boxing skills to pick off Quarry, in what some described as ” A tactical masterpiece” . After 12 rounds Jimmy Ellis was announced as the new WBA World Heavyweight Champion. Jerry Quarry stated afterwards “If they’d given me the decision, I’d have given it back. I didn’t deserve it.”

Although Ellis was the World Heavyweight Champion, things didn’t exactly run that smoothly for him, and he only ever got the chance to defend the title once. That title defence came on September 14th 1968 in Stockholm, Sweden against Floyd Patterson. After 15 rounds, in a very close fight, the referee who was the only person judging the contest gave the bout to Ellis, much to the dissatisfaction of the crowd. Some boxing journalists had Ellis ahead by a round but the crowd that night certainly didn’t as they chanted “Floyd champ”.

After that bout Ellis must of felt very frustrated as he struggled to get a fight. He was going fighting British legend Henry Cooper in England, But the British Boxing Board refused to recognize the bout as a world heavyweight contest as they were affiliated with the WBC and did not recognize the WBA title as a world title. The on off bout never occurred as Cooper eventually pulled out due to a knee injury. Bob Cleroux was also supposed to face Ellis but lost a tune-up fight which put him out of contention. When he eventually got a fight organised promoter Gregorio Peralta canceled it due to poor ticket sales 24 hours before the fight.


It would be 17 months until Jimmy Ellis got back into the ring. A unification bout was set for February 16th 1970 against “Smoking” Joe Frazier. Against all the big names and punchers Ellis fought as a heavyweight he had never been knocked down. But Frazier’s power proved too much for the diamond chin of Ellis as he sent him down to the  canvas not once but twice in the 4th round. Angelo Dundee stopped the fight at the beginning of the 5th round and Ellis suffered his first ever defeat by KO. Ellis would go on to win three low key fights, winning two by KO.

After three wins in a row, Ellis climbed through the ropes at the astrodome in Houston, Texas, to fight his good friend and sparring partner Muhammad Ali. This was one of the only fights that Angelo Dundee was not in the corner of Ali, But in the corner of Ellis. He might of been Ali’s trainer, but he was Ellis’ trainer and manager, thus getting a bigger share of the purse. Ali understood it was business and had no objections. Ellis was boxing very well until the 4th round where he was caught by a right hand from Ali that shook him in his boots. Ali then took control for the remainder of the fight. The 12th round saw Ellis against the ropes and as the damage took its toll, Ali laid off the punches a bit. Ali wasn’t trying to hurt Ellis, instead he pawed at him while looking at the referee to stop the bout, and that he did. Ali later revealed why he was reluctant to hurt Ellis, he said: “Well firstly he’s a friend of mine who has a wife and family who love him like mine loves me.  His eyes were rolling into the back of his head and I’m not going to purposefully kill a man to satisfy a blood thirsty crowd!” 

After that fight, Ellis continued unabated, winning his next eight fights by KO against relative journeymen. The next proper fight Ellis would have would be against devastating puncher Earnie Shavers, who secured 43 of his 44 wins by KO. It looked like Ellis had Shavers on the verge of going down in the 1st round but after a clinch, Shavers sent Ellis down to the mat with an uppercut and Ellis suffered a 1st round KO.

Ellis’ skills were in decline, he won his next fight against a low key opponent, but lost four and drew one of his next five fights. One of those fights a rematch with Joe Frazier, It resulted in a 9th round stoppage after Angelo Dundee retired his boxer. Two months later he scored his first win in nearly two years against a virtual unknown by the name of Carl Baker. That was on the 6th of May 1975, And would be his last ever professional contest. He suffered a training injury that left him half blind in his left eye.

Ellis now suffers from dementia pugilistica, also known as “punch drunk” disease. Many boxers suffer this due to taking so many hard punches to the head over the course of their career. It is thought that Jimmy Ellis thinks his dead wife is still alive. For a man who had such a fighting heart, had such a great chin, who was able to take punches from the best heavyweights of all time to be struck down for giving fans what they wanted is such a shame.

Jimmy Ellis was inducted into the World Boxing Hall Of Fame in 2004. He will never be remembered as one of the greatest heavyweights ever, and he won’t be on the list of boxing’s top 10, one list you can add him to though, is that of a man who gave everything to the sport, blood, sweat and tears, and in the end, his mind. I can’t help but think that if there were as many divisions around back then as there is now, Jimmy Ellis would surely of been in and around the greats. Had they had a cruiserweight divsion back then, Im sure a lot more people would have heard of Jimmy Ellis. Instead you might see a video of him losing to Ali or Frazier, always in and and around the greatest heavyweights ever but always being the forgotten heavyweight champion of the world.

Images courtesy of cyberboxingzone.com and boxingrec.com

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