When we read the obituaries for Jimmy Ellis earlier this month, we were reminded that for some, no matter how significant their accomplishments, there will always be another name attached.
Jimmy Ellis never danced free from the shadows of Mohammed Ali. We can’t help but remember Ellis as Ali’s sparring partner. But Ellis was a champion and a talented boxer. Fans admired the deceptive power of his punches, his hand speed, his patience in the ring, and his opportunism. He was an inspiring overachiever who made the most of his talent and physique.
Jimmy Ellis was crowned the WBA world Heavyweight Champion on April 27, 1968. One year earlier, Ali had been stripped of his title after refusing to be drafted into the U.S. Army.
Three years later, in the Houston Astrodome, the two would reunite and Ali would win. The referee called it after twelve.
The Jimmy Ellis obituaries succumbed to the predictable references to Ali. But they missed something we have come to expect.
Cruel stories of a boxer’s descent into ruin. Bankruptcy, dementia, drug abuse, awkward entanglements, and all the other common afflictions.
None of those, with the possible exception of dementia, because he had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease in his later years, would haunt Ellis. After his career in the ring, he worked for the Louisville Parks and Recreation Department. He and his wife Mary Etta went to the Riverview Baptist Church and sang in the choir.
For a year and a half, Jimmy Ellis was a champion in the golden age of the heavyweight. And when we read Mohammed Ali’s obituary, Jimmy Ellis will likely be a footnote.
“All I ever wanted to be,” said Ellis, “Was to be a good fighter and a good person.”