Ex-heavyweight champ Jimmy Ellis, friend of Muhammad Ali, dies at 74

Jimmy Ellis (L), shown in his 1971 fight with Muhammad Ali, died Tuesday at 74. (File photo)

Jimmy Ellis was a terrific heavyweight in an era filled with all-time great heavyweights. Best known perhaps as a longtime friend of the legendary heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, Ellis took a secondary role throughout his career to bigger-name fighters despite being a world-class fighter in his own right.

Ellis, who lost to both Ali and Joe Frazier during a 14-year professional career in which he went 40-12-1 with 24 knockouts, died Tuesday at 74 in Louisville, Ky. He had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

He saw Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, fighting as an amateur on television in the 1950s. He then contacted Clay, and they began to spar together and became friends. Ellis turned pro in 1961 and fought as a middleweight, meeting notable 160-pounders such as Georgie Benton and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.

It was as a heavyweight that Ellis made his biggest mark, however. After Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing induction into military service, the WBA set up a tournament to find a champion to succeed him.

Ellis defeated Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry to win the belt, outpointing Quarry over 15 rounds. Ellis then defeated Floyd Patterson in his first title defense, only to lose the belt to Frazier on Feb. 16, 1970, when he couldn't answer the bell for the fifth round.

But Ellis was highly regarded going into his first fight with Frazier, and Sports Illustrated's Mark Kram praised him for his performance in the WBA tournament.

Comparing records is often dull and unilluminating, but certain evidence evolves from the charts of Ellis and Frazier. First there is Ellis, who thrashed Martin at a time when Frazier would not walk on the same side of the street with him. Later Ellis did the best piece of work anyone has ever done on Oscar Bonavena, then he beat a misguided Jerry Quarry in a disciplined, dreary bout for the WBA title. His first and last defense of his title was against Floyd Patterson in Stockholm, a fight which he won—if he won, and I think he did—in the final minutes. Patterson was the one bad fight for Ellis. Because of the obstinacy of many people (including, possibly, Ellis himself) and the collapse of several promotions, Ellis has not fought in more than 15 months. He has never lost a fight as a heavyweight, though as a poorly handled middleweight he was beaten several times.

He faced Ali, his boyhood friend, on July 26, 1971, in Ali's first bout after losing the title in "The FIght of the Century" to Frazier on March 8, 1971. Ali stopped Ellis in the 12th round. Angelo Dundee trained both Ali and Ellis, but he worked Ellis' corner in that fight because he also managed Ellis.