Ellis, to be certain, could not gamble in any way against Quarry. He has too much past (a lachrymose career among the middleweights of short money and much punishment) and he does not have enough future. He is 28 now, and he has been a black fighter for over a decade. To be a black fighter, even the least carnivorous of managers will agree, is a "stomped down life, a stone-hard road." Few pamper the black fighter. He has to fight from the moment he steps in a gym. It is an axiom among white fight managers: "You have to find out early if the black boy has any dog in him."
The managers do find out early. But they know, too, that a white fighter remains a property. While often the black boys unload freight or work on the docks during the day, then spend long dreary hours in the gym at night, the white fighter is "romanced"—no job, no fights over his head, the best equipment, expensive sparring partners. Ellis, hardly bitter but certainly no fool, survived this separate and unequal treatment and learned his trade the way few fighters ever do. His two years as Muhammad Ali's sparring partner were another sort of embarrassment. "I have my secret thoughts," says Ellis, "but why bring them out and have them kicked around?"
Ellis' aversion to controversy was sharpened by his time with Ali. The fighters, though friendly, were never close. Often, in camp Ellis seemed to be just a phlegmatic, machinelike figure, but he was never obsequious to Ali. That alone separated him from those who fluttered about the champion. With Ellis it was a matter of holding on to his pride.
"We were in Chicago," says fighter Willie Johnson, "in trainin'. One day Jimmy belts Ali right on the chin. Ali's legs do this little number and he fall right into the ropes. He weren't seein' nothin'. He was stone-cold shook up. But that was nothin' the way Herbert Muhammad, his manager, was. Right off, Herbert, well he want Jimmy out of the camp. Jimmy needed the job, but he wouldn't go see nobody and play up to them. Herbert cooled but he didn't let Jimmy work for a few days."
There were other tense moments in Ellis' relationship with Ali. When Ali still had the house in Miami and Ellis was working with him, there was quiet exchange over second-class treatment. At meals the guests, brothers and various backslappers were served first. Often, when it came time for the sparring partners to eat, there was not much left. Ellis put up with this for a while, then one day announced he was going into town for his supper. This dinner protocol and his sleeping quarters—the size of a closet—were soon changed.
"I was made out to be nothin' but a sparring partner," says Ellis. "It bothered me to be run down like that. I was more than that. I knew it. I think I've proven that now."
Before last week's fight Ellis seemed quite annoyed at the unceasing "white hope" prattle, even though Quarry bluntly refused the odious designation, thus mollifying the bellicose Black Panthers. More than anything, what disconcerted Ellis was the fact that Quarry had a large following among the black population in Oakland. "If Quarry wins, boxing will be great again," said one black man in the gym. A black fighter countered: "Us spooks is like crabs in a can. One tries to climb out and five others reach up and pull him back."
Ellis is now too far along to be pulled back by anybody. He, like Quarry, received $125,000 for the fight, and Ellis is only interested in the money. He has become the black fighter who grabs the money and runs. He is not interested in becoming a legend. The heavyweight title, suddenly awash in chaos and backdoor politics, will be difficult to reunite. Ellis is the WBA's champion, Joe Frazier holds the title in five states and Ali, exiled and smothering in a morass of litigation, is the champion of the "thinking" part of the universe. Nobody, of course, has accused those who legislate in boxing of ever having a single sensible or unselfish idea calculated to dispel the confusion.
It is fairly certain that an Ellis-Frazier fight is quite remote. Sports Action, Inc., which packaged the tournament, will try desperately to make the bout, but the people behind each fighter will be inordinately recalcitrant. The eight-man WBA tournament, despite some dismal performances and severe losses absorbed by Sports Action, can be viewed as a success if only because it brought movement to the heavyweight division. Constant coverage on ABC television helped and the ratings—three fights drew the highest ratings in ABC's sports programming for the year—indicate a respectable growth in boxing interest. The packagers have profited from the tournament. Sports Action will make $100,000, admittedly a meager sum for one year's work. But one guesses the Sports Action people are relieved they no longer have to deal with the Quarry family.
Father Jack and his family, 41 strong including relatives, are pleasant, passionate and tribal people. The championship for Jerry meant much to Jack. With victory, he finally would be convinced that he was an entity, that he belonged to a world that had rejected him. He came to California, just off of a boxcar, with an East Dallas pocketknife and the clothes on his back. But now he was not a man to be taken lightly. He had his own ideas on what came next and who would reap the benefits of his son's ascendancy. But there was not much illusion left in him, and he knew when the dream had died.