Jimmy Ellis, a heavyweight champion who sparred with an up-and-coming Muhammad Ali and later fought some of the era’s best boxers, died Tuesday. He was 74.
Ellis died at a Louisville hospital, brother Jerry Ellis said. Jimmy Ellis had Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.
Ellis, the son of a preacher who loved singing gospel music, held the WBA heavyweight title from 1968 to 1970. He lost to Joe Frazier in a fight to unify the world heavyweight championship in 1970. In 1971, Ellis was stopped by Ali in the 12th round. He retired in 1975.
Ali remembered his longtime friend as a “master in the ring.”
“In the world of heavyweights, I have always thought that Jimmy was one of the best,” Ali said in a statement in which he and his wife, Lonnie, expressed condolences.
Ali said his friendship with Ellis began as both rose through the ranks as amateurs in their hometown of Louisville.
“As a former champion, Jimmy was known for exceptional hand speed and a strong chin,” Ali said.
Both fighters fought under the tutelage of Angelo Dundee. The great trainer often said that Ellis packed more punch than he was given credit for, Ali recalled. But Ali said Ellis’s greatest qualities were his “gentle manner and the compassion in his heart.”
“I had a kinship with Jimmy and felt like he and I were of the same cloth,” Ali said. “He was a great athlete and a caring man. Great competitors who happen to be great friends are rare. Jimmy Ellis was that to me and I will miss him.”
Ellis defeated Jerry Quarry to win the WBA crown in 1968. It was at a time when Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Ellis defended the title by defeating Floyd Patterson before losing to Frazier.
Ellis was one of the lightest heavyweights, but he compensated with plenty of grit.
“ He was always the smaller guy fighting a bigger guy, but he was always determined,” his brother said. “He didn’t always come out successful, but he was very competitive. He was a proud winner and he was a proud loser as well.”
After leaving boxing, Ellis spent years training fighters and later worked for the Louisville parks department.
“He was always true to Louisville,” his brother said. “This was his pride and joy. This is where he wanted to be.”
Ellis was preceded in death by his wife, Mary. They had six children together.