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Jimmy Ellis, Ali’s Friend Who Won Heavyweight Crown, Dies at 74

Boxer Jimmy Ellis
Boxer Jimmy Ellis, who beat Jerry Quarry to become World Boxing Association heavyweight champion in 1968, has died at the age of 74. Source: Allsport Hulton/Archive via Getty Images

Jimmy Ellis, who beat Jerry Quarry to become World Boxing Association heavyweight champion in 1968 and fought the era’s best fighters including his friend, Muhammad Ali, has died. He was 74.

He died yesterday at Baptist Health Louisville hospital in Kentucky, his son, Jeff Ellis, said in a telephone interview. He had suffered from dementia for more than a decade.

Ali’s former sparring partner and a fellow Kentuckian, Ellis was among a group of boxers who traded title belts during one of the heavyweight division’s most celebrated eras. His 15-round majority decision win over Quarry in Oakland, California, came in the final of an eight-man tournament. Later that year in Stockholm, he defended the belt against two-time champion Floyd Patterson in a fight that he also won on points.

“I was made out to be nothin’ but a sparring partner,” Ellis said in a 1968 interview with Sports Illustrated after winning the world title. “It bothered me to be run down like that. I was more than that. I knew it. I think I’ve proven that now.”

Ellis won the WBA belt that Ali held until he was stripped of his titles for refusing induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Ellis, who was 6-foot-1 (185 centimeters) and 197 pounds (89 kilograms) when he took the crown, won 40 bouts, 24 by knockouts, and lost 12 in his professional boxing career.

Technical Knockout

He was WBA champion until Joe Frazier defeated him in February 1970 at Madison Square Garden in New York. In that fight, Frazier knocked him down twice in the fourth round and Ellis didn’t come out of his corner for the fifth.

Ellis began his boxing career at the Columbia Gym in Louisville, where he was trained by police officer Joe Martin, who was credited with spotting Ali’s talent years earlier. Ali and Ellis later shared the renowned trainer, Angelo Dundee.

After losing his world title, Ellis had unsuccessful bouts with Ron Lyle, Joe Bugner and Frazier before retiring in 1975 after injuring his left eye during training. He later developed a form of dementia that is common to boxers.

James Albert Ellis was born Feb. 24, 1940 in Louisville, the son of a Baptist minister, Walter Ellis, and his wife, Elizabeth, who raised the family’s nine children.

He had a strong interest in gospel music from his teenage years and was a featured singer in the Riverview Spiritual Singers, based at the Riverview Baptist Church, where his father became pastor. The group toured and released recordings, even while Ellis pursued boxing.

Encountering Ali

Ellis first encountered Ali watching him fight on local television in the late 1950s, and decided he could beat Cassius Clay, as Ali was then known, Jeff Ellis said. They often sparred, then became friends.

They met in a North American Boxing Federation championship bout in 1971. While neither fighter was knocked down, the referee stopped the match at 2:10 of the 12 round, awarding a technical knockout victory to Ali. They remained friends in retirement.

“I still talk to Muhammad once a week on the phone and he never, ever, begins our conversation without the words ‘‘Hi, champ,’’ Ellis told the Daily Telegraph in 2003.

Ali, with the help of his wife, Yolanda ‘‘Lonnie’’ Williams, wrote yesterday about Ellis in an e-mailed statement.

‘‘Lonnie and I are very saddened by the loss of our friend Jimmy Ellis,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Great competitors who happen to be great friends are rare. Jimmy Ellis was that to me.’’

In addition to his son Jeff, Ellis’s survivors include another son, James Jr., daughters Jamesetta Wells, Inez Ellis, Mary Ellis and Sonya Ellis, and 10 grandchildren. His wife, the former Mary Etta Williams, died in 2006.

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