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Parallel Lives: Jimmy Ellis and Muhammad Ali

05/07/2014 06:14 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2014
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jimmy Ellis let his fists do the talking.

As a result, Ellis was little-known and barely remembered when he died Tuesday in his hometown of Louisville at age 74. He had been treated for Alzheimer's disease.

His teenage friend and sparring partner, Muhammad Ali, talked all the time and grew into an icon. His wit and charisma spread his reputation far beyond the shrunken world of boxing.

They both had talent as young amateurs in Louisville, where they split two bouts. They were both, at different times, heavyweight champions. But one became a legend, the other a modest, reticent man who volunteered at his church and sang in the choir.

When the poobahs of boxing stripped Ali of his heavyweight title when he refused induction into the armed forces in protest over the war in Vietnam in 1967, the World Boxing Association conceived an eight-man elimination tournament to crown a successor to Ali.

My father, the sports columnist, Red Smith, dismissed the tournament as a "series promoted by the World Boxing Association and Roone Arledge of the American Broadcasting Company to keep Howard Cosell busy." (He rarely passed up an opportunity to needle his neighbor, Cosell.)

Nevertheless, Ellis emerged on top and successfully defended his title against the estimable Floyd Patterson in Stockholm in 1968. He lost it later to Smokin' Joe Frazier.

Finally, in 1971, Ellis got a match against Ali after the Supreme Court remembered the First Amendment and overturned the champ's conviction for draft evasion. Again, Ali grabbed all the headlines, promoting Ellis as one of the best fighters in the world. "To be my sparring partner, you got to be good," he bragged, building the purse. Ali took the fight in the 12th round.

Ellis lived a quiet life after retiring from boxing in 1975. His time in the ring cost him the sight in his left eye and rattled his brains.

"All I wanted to be was a good fighter," he was quoted as saying, "and a good person."

He was both.

TERENCE SMITH is a journalist. His website is terencefsmith.com.

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