Muhammad Ali vs. Jimmy Ellis: The Inevitable Fight - 40 Years On
Ali vs. Ellis
By Tom Gray: Muhammad Ali awoke on July 26th 1971 with a different feeling in his stomach than what would normally be the case before fight night. The contest in question would be his thirty third in eleven years and would take place at the Houston Astrodome in Texas in front of a capacity crowd. None of this would be a problem for The Greatest, only this was his first appearance since losing an undefeated record to Joe Frazier, and the man he was facing was a childhood friend – Jimmy Ellis.
Cassius Clay and Jimmy Ellis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky during a time of racial oppression. Both were innocent teenagers who became amateur boxing stars and even competed together on a local television show called “Tomorrow’s Champions”. As a professional the charismatic Ali rode the crest of a wave, winning the heavyweight championship of the world on three occasions, but what about the man who was with him from the beginning?
Jimmy Ellis competed within the heavyweight golden age and, although he never reached the pinnacle of the sport, his career was remarkable. He turned pro as a middleweight and had mixed success, dropping decisions to George Benton and the legendary Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. In 1964, weighing 159lbs, Ellis knocked out a novice professional by the name of Joe Spencer and just three years later, weighing 194lbs, he stopped heavyweight contender Leotis Martin in nine rounds. Martin would go on to savagely stop Sonny Liston in 1969 before retiring due to eye damage.
The peak of Ellis’ career was when, as a heavy underdog, he annexed the WBA heavyweight championship by winning an eight man elimination tournament. To earn his prize Ellis defeated the aforementioned Martin, Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry in an impressive run of victories before defending against two time former champion, Floyd Patterson. Ellis won a controversial decision against Patterson but a broken nose kept him out of action for fifteen months and when he returned his problems intensified. His second title defense would be against a fully fledged nightmare in the form of “Smokin” Joe Frazier.
The lay off and a “great” opponent proved too much for Ellis and he was stopped after five rounds of brutal action. Jimmy had been decked twice and Angelo Dundee halted proceedings, between rounds, when his fighter indicated he had no memory of being on the floor. Howard Cosell, working for ABC television, stated that Ellis had been “worn to a frazzle” by the Frazier assault. The new champion would go on to brutalize Bob Foster inside of two rounds in Detroit and produced one of the finest performances in boxing history to win The Fight of the Century, against Muhammad Ali.
Ali vs. Ellis – The Inevitable Fight was promoted by Bob Arum’s Top Rank and the event was shrouded in history. Ali had eclipsed Ellis in terms of ability very early on in their careers and relied on his old friend as a sparring partner, completing hundreds of rounds. Ellis also fought on the undercard of Ali’s matches with Henry Cooper, Sonny Liston, George Chuvalo, Karl Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley. The upside of this was that he knew the heavyweight wizard better than anyone and felt confident that he could keep up with him technically.
There was also a very complex issue with regards to preparation. Both men were trained by the irreplaceable Angelo Dundee, who would be forced to make a choice on who he would be taking into battle. The shrewd Dundee may have worked with both fighters but he only managed Jimmy Ellis which meant a bigger share of the purse and in boxing – money talks. Ali understood completely and gave his head trainer role to Harry Wiley, a highly regarded New York trainer, who had worked with Henry Armstrong and Sugar Ray Robinson.
’The Greatest’ turned up at the arena and there was an immediate problem – no trunks. Between 1964 and 1981 there were only three sets of colors that Ali selected for a fight. He donned white trunks with a black stripe, in homage to Sugar Ray Robinson, and less frequently white trunks with a red stripe. In two fights, with Bonavena and Frazier, he settled on red trunks with a white stripe, which were quickly abandoned. The only time this pattern was broken was in the match up with Jimmy Ellis, when Ali’s cheerleader, Drew “Bundini” Brown, forgot to pack his bosses attire. The former champion did not appreciate being let down sartorially and reduced Brown to tears when he was forced to wear a pair of all white trunks that were at least two sizes too big.
The event itself was one sided but it did have its moments. Ali, anxious to prove that Frazier hadn’t stripped him of any resources, traversed the ring like a lightweight, stopping briefly to perform the double shuffle. In the third Ali dropped his hands to his sides and danced within punching range, evading his opponent’s shots with an incredible display of reflexes. He slipped the jab effortlessly and changed the direction of right hand leads by allowing the punch to clip his left shoulder. The crowd and Ellis were dazzled by the former champion’s finesse as veteran broadcaster, Guy Le Bow, yelled in awe; “He is confusing Ellis now!”
Ali had weighed in at 221lbs, as opposed to 189lbs for Ellis, and the strength advantage was decisive. He frequently hurt his man with right hands but refused to go for the finish. The man who had tortured Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell years earlier appeared almost kind to his friend as he gave him clear amounts of time to recover. Going into the last round Ali decided to pull rank for the final time, smashing Ellis with a right hand to the head and a shotgun left uppercut which effectively ended the bout in earnest. The proud warrior was shaky from head to toe as Ali tapped him lightly and looked at referee Jay Edson to call a halt, which he did with less than a minute remaining.
A few days later Ali met up with Howard Cosell and, reviewing the fight on ABC, explained his reluctance to open up; “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!”
Ali was only half way through a glittering career which remains unparalleled in terms of heavyweight supremacy. Ellis would fight on until 1975, and when he finally retired, his friend made him a permanent fixture within The Ali Circus. Despite both men operating within the hurt business they remained loyal to each other through a bond that was forged from childhood.
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