Still on his feet, but Ellis pays price for boxing fame
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The city of Louisville went out of its way to embrace its boxing legacy of heavyweight champions in the week leading up to Mike Tyson's fight last night against Danny Williams at Freedom Hall. Four Louisville natives have held the heavyweight title. The least known is Marvin Hart, a plumber who won the title in 1905. The other three are more familiar to boxing fans: Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Ellis and Greg Page. Those three Louisville fighters were featured in newspaper photos this week in an article about the hopes for a boxing revival in the city spurred by the Tyson bout. But those photos captured only the glory of their time as champions. They don't show the painful aftermath. Ali's current physical condition has been well documented. "The Greatest" suffers from Parkinson's syndrome that is believed to have been brought on by the punches he took. Also documented is the story of Page, who held the World Boxing Association version of the title in 1984 and suffered brain damage and paralysis three years ago at 42 when he was knocked out and failed to get proper medical care ringside at a fight in Northern Kentucky. The forgotten champion and son of Louisville, though, is Ellis, who is suffering from pugilistic dementia, the same sort of debilitating mental disorder that plagued one his former opponents, Jerry Quarry, who died of cardiac arrest at 53. "It has come on in the past year," said Howard Gosser, a former fighter and music and boxing promoter who is a close friend of Ellis. "He has good days and bad days. It's short-term memory problems." This was not a particularly good day for Ellis, who is 64. He could not remember watching Ibn Ali - the son of Rahman Ali, Muhammad Ali's brother - fight, yet Gosser said Ellis had been working with Ali and had been in his corner for all eight of his fights. But while warmly greeting fans during lunch at a local restaurant - he is still called "champ" in Louisville - Ellis appeared much like the quiet, talented fighter who emerged as heavyweight champion during Muhammad Ali's 3 1/2-year exile from boxing for refusing to be drafted. Ellis won the vacant title by beating Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena and Quarry in a nationally televised elimination tournament. He successfully defended the title once against Floyd Patterson, winning a close, controversial decision, and then, after not fighting for a year, lost the title when he was knocked out in five rounds by Joe Frazier, who had not participated in the tournament and had been designated heavyweight champion by New York and five other states - the origins of the breakup of the heavyweight title that plagues the sport to this day. Ali is the face of boxing in Louisville. They are in the process of building the Muhammad Ali Center here, and he remains one of the biggest names in sports on a global scale. But you can't tell the story of Ali without that of Ellis, who was connected to so much of Ali's success and history in the ring. The two grew up in Louisville, though they didn't know each other as youngsters, and were brought into boxing by the same man, Joe Martin, at Columbia Gym. Ellis said he got into boxing after watching Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, fighting on a local amateur boxing television show. "I had a friend of mine named Donnie Hall, and he fought Ali on this show called 'Tomorrow's Champions,'" Ellis said. "Donnie lost, and I thought I could maybe be a fighter then." Ellis went with Hall to Columbia Gym, wound up sparring with Ali, and they became close friends, even though they were rivals. Ellis beat Ali in the amateur ranks but was Ali's sparring partner in the first part of Ali's career, before he was exiled. Ellis helped prepare Ali for his fights and boxed on the undercard of 10 Ali fights. "We got along really good," Ellis said of his relationship with Ali. "We worked out together and got ourselves ready for fights. We were friends." They remain friends. Gosser said that he and Ellis visit Ali at his home in Michigan. Ellis began his professional career in April 1961 as a middleweight by knocking out Arley Siefer in three rounds in Louisville. He fought five more times that year in Louisville and suffered his first defeat when he lost a 10-round decision to the District's Holly Mims. After putting together a record of 21-5, Ellis moved up from middleweight to a small heavyweight, often weighing about 190 pounds, when he scored a big first-round knockout of Johnny Persol in New York in March 1967 - a month before Ali refused induction. Ali was stripped of his title for his actions, and a tournament was set up among the top-ranked heavyweights for the vacant belt. It was Ellis' knockout of Persol that put him in the tournament. With Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, in his corner, Ellis surprised everyone by beating Martin and then knocking the powerful Bonavena down twice, putting him against Quarry in the final for the title. Ellis defeated Quarry in a decision in April 1968 to become champion. But Ellis wasn't champion for long. He defended the title once that year in Stockholm, barely winning a controversial decision against former champion Patterson. Ellis didn't fight at all in 1969 and then lost the belt when he finally faced Frazier, whose powerful left hooks ended the fight in five rounds. He would continue fighting and even fought Ali, who stopped Ellis in 12 rounds in their July 1971 fight in Houston. He fought until 1975, when he was blinded in his left eye by a thumb while sparring. He retired with a record of 40-12-1, with 24 knockouts. Ellis was not one of the best fighters to ever hold the heavyweight title. But he fought - and won - the heavyweight title in the toughest era of heavyweight boxing, a former middleweight fighting among the giants. "He fought in the golden era of the heavyweight division," said boxing historian Bert Sugar. "He had a presence and a name. He was one of those partial champions who gets lost in the shuffle, but whatever he did is better than what we have now. We know who Jimmy Ellis is. We don't know who Lamon Brewster [the World Boxing Organization champion, one of four fighters who currently hold heavyweight titles] is." Ellis can recall many of his fights and is proud of his boxing legacy. "I was a smaller heavyweight, but I could fight the big guys," he said. "There were a lot of great fighters then, and I was beating a lot of them. I fought to win." After he left boxing, Ellis worked for the city of Louisville in the Parks and Recreation Department, helping youths and senior citizens. He also devoted more time to one of his passions, gospel singing and even recorded a CD three years ago, with the help of Gosser: "Jimmy Ellis - Gospel With A Punch." Gosser is also working with Ellis to establish an amateur boxing program in Louisville. "We are trying to bring back the old 'Tomorrow's Champions' TV program," Gosser said. "That used to give kids an incentive to train, to be on television. We want to call it 'Jimmy Ellis' Tomorrow's Champions." Ellis was one of yesterday's champions, and for a brief spell held the greatest title in the world. "I'm proud of what I did," he said. "But all I ever wanted was to be a good fighter and a good person."