Jimmy Ellis: From Floyd to Frazier

By Mike Casey on October 23, 2013
Jimmy Ellis: From Floyd to Frazier
“In the fourteenth round, both landed and fell into a clinch. They fell over each other."

Ellis had a broken nose and a tired look on his face when the bout ended. Floyd Patterson wore no battle scars…

The cold and icy blasts for which Sweden is famous continued to apply their grip for long after the event. Everyone was at it, everyone was having a go. So powerful was the great Swedish backlash that referee Harold Valan felt compelled to justify a decision he had made in a feature article for The Ring magazine. Jimmy Ellis blasted announcers Howard Cosell and Bud Palmer for their comments and observations. Floyd Patterson blasted nobody because Floyd was Floyd and preferred a quiet life. People from all over the world wrote indignant and sometimes very rude letters to besieged editors.

These people were not discussing the harsh Swedish climate or why Swedish women are the fantasy objects of so many red-blooded males who don’t come from Sweden. It was all about boxing, of course. Bloody boxing and the inability of its officials to judge the fair winner of a fight when the referee has no excuse to show ten fingers and cry, “Out!”

It was September of 1968 and Jimmy Ellis, heavyweight champion of the World Boxing Association, had retained his title by outpointing Floyd Patterson by nine rounds to six on the scorecard of referee and sole judge Harold Valan. The storm of protest was not long in erupting and the ingredients were quite gorgeously tasty. Ellis had a broken nose and a tired look on his face when the bout ended. Patterson wore no battle scars, still looked forever young and offered only a wry smile when the verdict was announced.

Patterson, the only man to regain the heavyweight championship of the world had won back half a version of his old crown according to the eyes and minds of most who had witnessed his odyssey in Stockholm. You could almost see the descending red mist of the chattering masses as lovable Floyd suffered the cruel blow in his usual “Aw shucks” manner. It was like seeing cute little Snoopy being denied his dinner bowl for nipping next door’s cat on the nose.

At the time, few people were interested in examining the odyssey of erstwhile middleweight Jimmy Ellis, who had lost to Henry Hank, Rubin Carter, Don Fullmer and George Benton before springing up to the heavyweight division in the manner of Tommy Burns.

Best, however, that we get the Patterson controversy out of the way first, since its vapor trail was quite deliciously spicy. People who weren’t even around in 1968 are discussing the Ellis-Patterson decision on the countless boxing forums of 2013 after watching the video. They just can’t leave it alone. Floyd definitely won. Oops, no he didn’t, Jimmy did. Try it yourself if you haven’t already, but take care. Too many viewings can make you as mad as all those professors who can’t resist the dangerous urge to define infinity.

Referee Valan certainly believed he could define the winner of a close fight when he saw one and was eager to explain his case. The Ring article even included a copy of Harold’s scorecard, which, mercifully, didn’t include any funny little drawings or a distracted reminder to bring home a present for Mrs. Valan back in New Jersey.

Case

Valan argued his case very well: “I saw Jimmy win by nine rounds to six. I would make a similar decision if, in a rematch, I had the privilege of being the referee again, and circumstances in the 45 minutes of action were similar to those I saw that chilly night in Stockholm.

“Some of the 25,000 spectators voiced their disapproval of the decision. But a referee gets used to that sort of thing. Contrary to what some writers extracted from their typewriters, there was no demonstration against me.

“I gave the Stockholm fight to Ellis because he won it. Floyd was as good a Patterson as I had seen in action. However, he did not put on an aggressive attack. He did not show enough to warrant displacing Ellis as the champion of the World Boxing Association. At no time did Floyd Patterson, with so much at stake, take the initiative.

“Floyd backed away for 15 rounds. I am told that he fractured Jimmy’s nose. He cut Jimmy’s eye in round two. You would think that a heavyweight who achieved these points of advantage would press the fight and show eagerness. But Patterson did not show this eagerness, this essential combativeness.

“Now, about Ellis’ busted nose and his cut eye. They are cited by the TV viewers as evidence that Patterson did the greater damage and won the fight. It takes only one punch to break your opponent’s nose. It takes only one punch to cut his eye. Patterson could have done it all with just two blows. Two punches will not win unless the second is a KO. The nose buster was a flying jab.

“Popular sentiment was all in favor of Patterson against Ellis. Floyd is married to a Swedish woman. He apparently plans to make Sweden his home. The Swedes had this in mind all the way. The 25,000 fans were all for Patterson. If he swung and missed, they hollered. If he landed, they went nuts.

“Patterson used that old Cus D’Amato peekaboo style. In close, Floyd was nothing. Ellis was trying to make the fight. In the eighth round Ellis stunned Floyd and woke him up. Patterson won that round. But he did not follow through in the ninth. He won the tenth but blew the eleventh and twelfth. Ellis kept flicking and scoring. Remember the name of the game is boxing. Jimmy was the aggressor in rounds one, three, five, six and seven.

“There were no knockdowns in the fight. In the fourteenth round, both landed and fell into a clinch. They fell over each other. I signaled that it was not a knockdown. Patterson had landed a right counter and Jimmy pulled Floyd over him. In round 15, Patterson did not rush out and fight. Ellis struck him on the temple and Patterson appeared to be out. Ellis might have stopped Floyd at this point but he held his man up.”

Watch this!

At his two-story colonial house in his hometown of Louisville, whilst sharing the company of sportswriter Dave Kindred, Jimmy Ellis grew increasingly exasperated as his projector hummed and played back the fight with Patterson. It was now seven months after the event in April, 1969, and still the controversy burned.

Normally a man of placid nature, Ellis couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Listen to this coming up,” he told Kindred. “If this isn’t something.”

Bud Palmer was doing a blow-by-blow account of the fight after an audio blip on the telecast rendered ringside announcer Howard Cosell temporarily silent. This was of no consolation to Ellis, since Palmer and Cosell were calling the fight in almost exactly the same way. Palmer says, “Patterson has had things his own way now through the first six rounds.”

Jimmy is beside himself as he protests, “Now you tell me how a man thousands of miles away, looking at this fight on television just like we’re doing, can say something like that! The way I see it, I’m winning this fight about five rounds to one.

Later on, when Howard Cosell and the world of sound are reconnected (never a pleasing combination for many fight fans), Ellis says, “Watch this.”

The film shows Patterson scoring with a right and then pressing Ellis into a corner and following up with two more blows. “Patterson has Ellis in trouble,” Cosell says very excitedly. “He’s hit him good three times.”

It is more than Ellis can bear as he stops the projector and runs the segment again. “No, he didn’t at all. Look! He hits me once. I even hit him in there and Cosell – he’s so buddy-buddy with Patterson and always has been – he didn’t even mention it.”

Ellis kept running the film, but there was nothing he could change. It was history and people would keep talking about it. Jimmy knew what he had to do as the prized heavyweight championship lay fractured and stagnant. He owned half that title in the eyes of the WBA, while Joe Frazier was recognized as Muhammad Ali’s successor in six American states. Ali himself, still embroiled in court battles over his refusal to be drafted into the Army, continued to be a man in limbo well over two years since knocking out Zora Folley in his last title defense.

Ellis had to beat Frazier and Jimmy knew he could beat Ali too if the opportunity arose. “Yes, I could beat Clay. I knocked him down once while we were sparring in Toronto. I beat him as an amateur. He always said he was the greatest, but I never thought he was that much better.

“I’m ready for Joe Frazier. I’m tired of Frazier this, Frazier that. He says I’m ducking him. Well, it’s Frazier who’s ducking me. He knows I’m going to beat him.”

Specter

Jimmy Ellis didn’t beat Joe Frazier. Ellis didn’t beat Ali either when the two old sparring partners finally met in Houston in late 1971. By that time, both Jimmy and Muhammad had been vanquished by Frazier and were on the comeback trail.

Jimmy’s career had stalled badly after the Patterson fight in Stockholm. The specter of Floyd continued to haunt Ellis in more ways than one. Jimmy’s broken nose took a long time to heal and planned defenses of his WBA title against Henry Cooper in London and Gregorio Peralta in Montevideo went by the board.

Ellis had been inactive for seventeen months by the time he met Frazier in their championship unification match at Madison Square Garden on February 16, 1970. Fighting Frazier in your best physical and mental condition was an unenviable task. Fighting him with rust in your engine was not a smart thing.

It was a shame for Ellis, though only he knew if he could have managed his career with greater urgency after the Patterson fight. Jimmy’s long layoff prompted many a sarcastic remark from boxing reporters who wondered if we would ever see Ellis in the ring again.

At his sharpshooting, mobile best, Jimmy brought much to the table as a fast and clever 190-pound heavyweight of the era. With a relaxed style that was pleasing on the eye, he was fleet of foot, a good jabber and a deceptively hard and fast puncher. It seemed he was going nowhere in his early career as a middleweight, although he was fighting tough men from the start. In the sixth fight of his career, he suffered a points loss to the eternal Holly Mims, but roared back two months later with a first round knockout victory over the fading but very able Rory Calhoun. Rory had fought the very best in a 45-14-2 career and retired soon after losing to Jimmy.

Ellis later avenged his defeat to Holly Mims, but couldn’t get past the better men of the middleweight division as he dropped unanimous decisions to Henry Hank and Rubin Carter, lost a split verdict to Don Fullmer and suffered a majority points loss to the clever George Benton.

Ellis, however, always troubled opponents with his hand speed and hard hitting. His would catch many men out with his almost casual delivery. Like many a fast puncher, the blows often looked lanquid as Jimmy slung them over. His fortunes improved dramatically as he moved up to light heavyweight and finally threw his lot in with the dreadnoughts.

His purple patch began in late 1966, with a trio of first round knockouts that culminated in his shocking blitz of the highly touted Johnny Persol at Madison Square Garden in March, 1967. Poor Johnny, knocked down twice in that fight, must have wondered who let the dogs out after going on a nice little winning run of his own. He had just broken into the heavyweight top ten with an excellent triumph over the fancied Amos (Big Train) Lincoln after notching prior wins against Harold Johnson, Herschel Jacobs and James J. Woody.

Crushing

The crushing of Persol was the making of Jimmy Ellis. The handsome victory propelled Jimmy into the WBA’s eight-man elimination tournament to determine Ali’s successor. Despite the spiteful and politically motivated exclusion of Joe Frazier, the tournament was an exciting and thoroughly enjoyable series of fights that shook up the stagnant heavyweight division and brought new contenders to the fore as the long established members of the old guard tumbling down the ladder.

Ernie Terrell was matched against Thad Spencer, Floyd Patterson took on Jerry Quarry and Karl Mildenberger was pitted against Oscar (Ringo) Bonavena. It is probably fair to say that the bout between Jimmy Ellis and Leotis Martin was seen as the least appealing of the quartet of matchups. Indeed it played second fiddle to the Terrell-Spencer match in a doubleheader at the Houston Astrodome.

Spencer, a nice stylist from Portland, Oregon, grabbed the headlines by winning a 15-round decision over Terrell, who looked a shell of his former self after taking a prolonged beating from Ali earlier in the year. Ellis stopped Leotis Martin in the ninth round, relegating Leotis back to his familiar role of competent journeyman. Less than two years later, he would become an “overnight sensation” with a dramatic knockout of Sonny Liston in Las Vegas.

It was the semi-finals of the tournament that threw Jimmy Ellis into sharp focus. He was drawn against the powerful and bullish Bonavena, while Jerry Quarry faced Thad Spencer. Bonavena had won through by traveling to Frankfurt and bouncing Karl Mildenberger around like a rubber ball on the way to an unlikely points victory. Unlikely because Karl was unofficially on the canvas for more than ten seconds when he suffered his fourth knockdown of the fight in the tenth round. Oscar had already familiarized Mildenberger with the mat in the first, fourth and seventh.

Just twelve years old and obsessed with big men who could clout, I watched in disbelief as Bonavena was outmaneuvered, out-skilled and even outpunched by a speedy and elegant Ellis in Louisville. Down Oscar went in the third and tenth rounds on his way to a unanimous points defeat, stung and stunned repeatedly by Jimmy’s evasiveness, skill and timing. Beatle-like Oscar certainly had the floundering look of John Lennon’s walrus as Jimmy bounced him around the rocks and cut off his route back to the sea.

I began to understand what I had seen. I began to appreciate the science and beauty of simple, classic boxing. Ellis went on to outpoint my favorite fighter Jerry Quarry in the tournament finale in Oakland, leaving me to wonder about the guys who can’t sufficiently marry their big punch to versatility and know-how.

Frazier

After Quarry, it was Floyd Patterson for Ellis. Then, at Madison Square Garden, it was Joe Frazier, who could certainly marry his punch to know-how despite Angelo Dundee’s dismissal of him as a “one-two-three” fighter.

It was a terrific fight between Joe and Jimmy and it is often forgotten how well Ellis did for the first two and a half rounds. Moving and circling sensibly, he kept the marauding Frazier at bay with solid jabbing and stinging, flashing right crosses. Towards the end of the third, however, Smokin’ Joe turned everything on its head with a gorgeous, booming left hook to the chin that sent Ellis into a drunken stagger against the ropes. The fight was won right there as Frazier became a man on fire. He kept firing that wrecking ball of a hook and doubled up with meaty right hand digs to the head and body that were felt from every armchair across the globe.

In the fourth round, Jimmy suffered his first knockdown as a heavyweight as he collapsed under Joe’s onslaught in a corner and fell down face first for a count of nine. Ellis fought back with great gameness before being slammed down in mid-ring by another peach of a left hook whose audible crack rang out above the wildly cheering Garden crowd. Somehow Jimmy survived and got through the round. One sensed it was over and it was. Trainer Angelo Dundee had seen enough and signaled to referee Tony Perez that Ellis wouldn’t be coming up for the fifth.

Jimmy would lose to Joe again five years later when both boys were in the sunset of their careers and tempting fate. Sadly, they are now lost to us. Frazier died in 2011, while Ellis is adrift in the fog of dementia and apparently convinced that his deceased wife is still with him.

Floyd Patterson died in 2006. Harold Valan passed away in 1991. Of the eight men who took part in the WBA’s elimination tournament, only Ellis, Ernie Terrell and Karl Mildenberger survive.

God bless, boys.


Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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  1. Eric Jorgensen 02:14pm, 11/01/2013

    Nice article.  Ellis is one of those guys who got thrown in with the lions early—result is a spotty record attached to a guy who really learned his craft.  I think he beats Quarry every night of the week, frankly, much as I like Quarry.

  2. Ted 12:39pm, 10/28/2013

    Greatest gym fighter in history was Big Roy Williams

  3. NYIrish 12:36pm, 10/28/2013

    Johnny Sears, a NYC welterweight was a tiger in the gym. He did everything right. He banged around main event and rated fighters in the gyms. He couldn’t win big under the lights. His younger brother David fought Michael Spinks for the Lightheavyweight championship.

  4. Ted 04:47pm, 10/25/2013

    Eric , what you heard about Parker was 100% correct. He was an animal in the gym

  5. Eric 01:26pm, 10/25/2013

    You can’t always tell by sparring sessions. I’ve read that 80’s middleweight contender Curtis Parker was a beast in the gym and actually gave big name fighters like Thomas Hearns, Dwight Qawi, and others all they could handle in sparring sessions. And then there is the Harry Greb and Jack Dempsey sparring stories. Boxing is probably full of stories of lesser fighters catching a better fighter on an off day in the gym or just stories about guys who were always better in the gym than in actual bouts. I believe I’ve heard that Quarry and Frazier sparred together early in their careers while Joe was out in California and it was rumored Quarry got the better of those sparring sessions. However, when the two met in ‘69 and ‘74, it was all Frazier. I would rank Quarry ahead of Bugner, but Bugner may had the style, size, and skills to pull off a mild upset over Jerry. I certainly would never rank Chuvalo over Quarry, but it was Chuvalo who beat Quarry, albeit a VERY controversial stoppage.

  6. The Fight Film Collector 08:26am, 10/25/2013

    Bugner and Quarry did have some ring time together.  When Quarry was in London in for his fight with Bodell, he trained at the same gym with Bugner.  Jerry’s brother Jimmy, who was there, told me that the two actually got on well.  Not only did they spar together, but Jerry took time to coach Bugner on fighting off the ropes.  You can see the technique at work in Bugner’s fight with Frazier.  I asked Jimmy about the sparring sessions and he said, “Jerry had the better of it.”

  7. Clarence George 03:57am, 10/25/2013

    I agree, Nicolas.  I thought at the time, and still do, that Quarry would have been Heavyweight Champion of the World if not for the presence of giants Ali and Frazier.  Bad timing…and bad luck.

  8. TED 07:07pm, 10/24/2013

    Some serious boxing knowledge being exchanged here.

  9. nicolas 07:01pm, 10/24/2013

    ERIC: Can’t agree with you about Bugner, a fighter who may have been an underachiever due to the death of a fighter, and the way perhaps his victory over Cooper made him be despised by many Brits at the time, and may have adversely affected him as well. . While it is true that he did do better against Ali and Frazier (the second fighter he busted up) he had lost to the likes of Jack Bodell, Ernie Shavers, (2nd round stoppage) and Ron Lyle, fighters that Quarry beat, and we no how long the first two lasted. Bugner did beat Ellis, but Quarry probably would have also. Quarry I would suggest in the early 70’s was probably the third best heavyweight around, behind Frazier and Ali.

  10. Eric 06:11pm, 10/24/2013

    @peter…Of the four, I think Bugner is the most overlooked and underrated, maybe because he wasn’t a big puncher, brawler or lacked the natural charisma like Quarry. Against Frazier and Ali, Bugner did much better than Quarry and Chuvalo, and arguably better even than Bonavena. I could see Bugner defeating Chuvalo and Bonavena and maybe even Quarry. Bugner was a big heavyweight for his day at 6’4” and 220 or so pounds, much bigger than Quarry. Chuvalo did lose to Bonavena in what was a relatively dull fight. A Chuvalo vs Bonavena bout seems like a dream bout for excitement, but it didn’t materialize. Bonavena certainly did better against Frazier and Ali, but Chuvalo would do better against Patterson. Hard choice but I can see the head to head matchup tilting things in Oscar’s favor. Either way the difference would be slight.

  11. peter 03:23pm, 10/24/2013

    @ Eric… Interesting ranking. I rank Bonavena above Chuvalo, since he beat him, (and in my view, knocked him down). I put Bugner last.  I would also try to fit in Boone Kirkman, I favorite of mine.

  12. Mike Casey 02:28pm, 10/24/2013

    Good comment, Eric. Very good comment.

  13. Eric 01:21pm, 10/24/2013

    @George Thomas Clark,

    You are right there about Bonavena. At least Quarry did beat Mathis, Lyle, Shavers, Mac Foster, Thad Spencer, Patterson, and he was whipping Chuvalo until the controversial stoppage. I thought Bonavena beat Frazier in their first fight, however, but Bonavena did indeed come up short when it counted most. The other two big name “White Hopes” of that era, Chuvalo and Bugner would also come up short when it counted most. Bugner and Bonavena did better against Ali and Frazier than Quarry or Chuvalo, but overall I would rank them in order of Quarry being the best, followed by Bugner, Chuvalo and then Bonavena.

  14. NYIrish 12:08pm, 10/24/2013

    Cheers Mike. Standard interesting and well written article. Great clips too! Adios!

  15. Mike Casey 11:16am, 10/24/2013

    NYIrish, thank you for this. Very interesting and informatve comment, sir. Thanks for taking the trouble and take good care.

  16. NYIrish 10:55am, 10/24/2013

    Good to hear mention of Johnny Persol. He was a flashy fast handed boxer and a local favorite in The Garden. He outboxed Amos Lincoln but the first right hand Ellis threw wrecked Persols’ dream. If I remember correctly a detached retina as a result of this fight ended Persols’ career.
    I didn’t think Patterson had much trouble with Ellis. Neither did anyone I spoke to back then. Harold Valan was a New York City character. He was a doorman at a major hotel. One old fight guy said he was the best ref money could buy. Who knows? But Sweden, sole official?
    Either Gene Ward or Dick Young, two great sports columnists of the era, used to end his column with the phrase “Don’t bet on fights.”

  17. Mike Schmidt 05:29am, 10/24/2013

    Quarry should have not been fighting against Ellis that particular night—really bad back and good write up at the time in Sports Illustrated. Mike Bruce I had Patterson winning that fight and Clarence there were some superb Abba Blond Dancing Queen Swede lovelies ringside on that one for sure. Ellis had a very very deceiving sneak right hand. If you watch his fight with George Chuvalo he had our Big Fella from Canada hurt pretty good at one point of almost down- not that our George would fess up to this hee hee

  18. George Thomas Clark 07:08pm, 10/23/2013

    Eric mentions that Jerry usually lost the big ones.  So did Oscar.

  19. nicolas 06:31pm, 10/23/2013

    I was not yet a teenager, but this was the first fight I ever saw. Of course back then I did not score the fight, but felt that Patterson did win, and read that many felt that Valen robbed Patterson. Valen however, in the article, which I have read a little bit above for the first time makes a good point about Patterson though, when I saw the whole fight recently, I did see that Patterson sometimes was not very aggressive as he should have perhaps been, and up to the 14th round, had it dead even at 7-7. I remember watching the fight in California, and seeing as I remember the end of the fight, not like it is shown here (perhaps I am wrong) It then on my part would have to be who do I give the last round to, but that would make it a very close fight, 8-7. If some of the rounds had been scored even, Probably Patterson would have won, but Valen I think did the right thing, and did not do that.

  20. Eric 06:08pm, 10/23/2013

    Can’t believe both Patterson and Ellis handled Ringo. A healthy Quarry could have defeated Ellis, but then again as good as Jerry was, he always seemed to lose the “big ones.” I give Patterson the victory in his fight with Ellis but perhaps it saved Floyd a beating later on. Frazier would’ve handled Patterson about the same way he handled Ellis. Frazier stated Ellis was much easier than Buster Mathis by citing Ellis really wasn’t a true heavyweight but just built himself into a heavyweight. Look at how skinny Ellis appeared as a middleweight? Pretty surprising he was able to floor a bullish, brawling, strong heavyweight like Bonavena. Jimmy might have won the first round in the Frazier bout but it really appeared the outcome was never in doubt. Frazier was just simply too powerful and strong for Jimmy. I think an interesting fight back then would have been Ellis vs Bob Foster. Or even Patterson vs Bob Foster. Bob had the height, reach and power to give smallish 190lb heavyweight fighters a go and could have won a heavyweight title against a Patterson or a Ellis. A Quarry vs Bonavena bout would have certainly provided some moments. Laater on we match Marvin Hagler vs Monzon winner to fight Ray Robinson and that winner fighting Harry Greb.

  21. Clarence George 05:38pm, 10/23/2013

    “Beatle-like Oscar certainly had the floundering look of John Lennon’s walrus as Jimmy bounced him around the rocks and cut off his route back to the sea.”  That is one beautiful sentence.

  22. Ted 05:24pm, 10/23/2013

    I’m reading it right now!

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