SI Vault
Mark Kram
December 11, 1967
He was always the other heavyweight from Louisville. Saturday he emerged from the shadow of Muhammad Ali, ignored some advice from his former boss and used his own devices to beat Oscar Bonavena
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 11, 1967

Jimmy Ellis Gets His Own Show

He was always the other heavyweight from Louisville. Saturday he emerged from the shadow of Muhammad Ali, ignored some advice from his former boss and used his own devices to beat Oscar Bonavena

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

From the ninth on Bonavena went after the cut, but Ellis protected the wound (it was not deep) by grabbing in close and keeping his eye to the right on the outside of Bonavena's body. The tactic allowed Bonavena to score to the body, which was not as serious an inroad as it might have been since the Argentinean is not effective to the body. Still, Bonavena was on his way to winning the 10th when, near the ropes, he walked into a jolting left hook that sent him sagging to the floor. Bonavena recovered, seemed to slip, and then stumbled to the center of the ring. In the 11th, he thundered out after Ellis who was moving in slow motion. His punches had no zing to them, but Bonavena, now the aggressor, was no longer strong either. He did hurt Ellis, who lay on the ropes and looked absently into the lights as Bonavena flaccidly attempted to beat him to the body. Dundee berated his fighter in the corner after that round, and in the 12th Ellis jarred Bonavena with a short hook, and then seemed to hold him up. "Let him fall," screamed Chickie Ferrara, an Ellis corner man, "let the big ape drop."

It was not the first time Ellis appeared to hold Bonavena up. "Three times," said Dundee, "he does it. A bad habit. He's got to learn to let them fall."

There are several other habits Ellis must unload. He is a bad listener (meaning he does not follow instructions from his corner), and he concentrates too often on throwing one punch. "After the first knockdown," said Ellis, "I went one-punch crazy. I set nothing up." Ellis can be faulted, too, for what appears to be either a poor sense of pace or a tendency to tire easily. "It's not a physical thing," said Dundee. "He's had all sorts of tests made, and he's all right. It's a mental thing, and we'll work on it until Jimmy's kicked the problem."

Despite these failings, jimmy Ellis appears to be the best performer in the tournament, and a solid bet the rest of the way. He has style, is certain of his moves, rips hard with either hand and takes a good whack. But Dundee may have difficulty freeing Ellis from his hang-up, making him believe that he is a special person and no longer the flop who fought the best middleweights during the early '60s and took unbearable punishment trying to make the weight. More than anything, though, Dundee must make Ellis believe that he is no longer the professional sparring partner, Muhammad Ali's shadow.

The rules of a sparring partner's conduct came easily to Ellis, but they are the kind of rules that have to mark any man who has pride. Soon, the sparring partner has no identity, and he becomes a part of the scene, like the smell of wet gloves or a heavy bag. The sparring partner does not punch the light bag or skip rope while the champion is on stage. He does not interject any comment when the press is talking to the champ. He must not look for reporters but let them seek him out and, when asked a question, always remember who provides the bread and pitch for the champ. Also, he must respect the champ's privacy and position, and sit with the champ or go places with him only when asked. With Ali, Jimmy Ellis knew his place. He was the very model of a proper sparring partner.

"It was Ali's show," says Ellis. "He paid me well and treated me good. It was not my way to brag." Ellis did not have to boast because Ali did that for him. which was standard Ali; his bragging about Ellis reflected greater glory on his own limitless abilities. " Jimmy Ellis," Ali repeated often, "could beat any heavyweight in the world today but me—and he is my sparring partner."

Though the relationship between Ali and Ellis was not strained, it did not cut deep. They were never close friends. The two men belonged to different worlds, and their association really only existed because of their common boyhood in Louisville. Ali is driven by more sophisticated dreams than is Ellis. For the most part, Ellis has remained untouched by the same world and social revolution that Ali embraced and then helped to make. Certainly, there is evidence to show that Ali sought to protect his friend; he ordered the Muslims to leave Ellis alone, and little or no pressure was applied to convert him to the faith. Still, Ellis was to some degree suspect by association. Ellis thought that he might have to quit the Ali camp because of it. He discussed the problem with his father, a Baptist minister.

"I told him not to worry," says his father. "It was not important what he was accused of as long as he was certain in his own mind of who he was and what he stood for, and this has never been a problem for James."

"We were friends as kids and we are friends today," says Ellis. "Even in camp he didn't run with me, but still he helped. But we are entirely different people. His world ain't mine and mine ain't certainly his."

Privately, Ellis has always believed he could beat Ali, but he refuses to say much on the subject. His new identity is still quite strange to him, and occasionally he wonders how it will feel to be a champion. "I can't imagine how it will be," he says. "It's like a dream to me. A man wants, a man works. He hopes, but nothing ever comes. But now I know it will happen."

Continue Story
1 2 3