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Jimmy Ellis: Confidence And Courage Personified

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As most know by now, former WBA heavyweight champ Jimmy Ellis 40-12-1 (24) passed away on May 6th.

So much has been written about what a tremendous human being Ellis was, and how as a professional fighter he was the ultimate overachiever on the baddest block in boxing circa 1965-75, the heavyweight division. In that era, monsters named Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo, Oscar Bonavena, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers and Ken Norton roamed.

And you know what, Ellis weighed less than everyone of those guys except for Patterson, and officially did something that Quarry, Chuvalo, Bonavena, Young, Lyle, Shavers and Norton never could in 12 total attempts – that’s win a heavyweight title bout. Ellis accomplished this feat on April 27, 1968 when he decisioned Jerry Quarry in the final of the WBA elimination tournament set up to determine Ali’s successor after Muhammad was stripped of his undisputed heavyweight title one year earlier for refusal to be inducted into the United States Army.

In 1961 Jimmy Ellis turned pro as a middleweight. And without much of any money behind him, he was fed to the lions and gatekeepers of the era when he was just starting out and inexperienced. Ellis was weakened by making the 160 pound middleweight limit and lost decisions to tough guys and top contenders Holly Mims (who he beat in a rematch) and Henry Hank. He was out-boxed by slickster George Benton and out-worked by the hard punching Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. In what had to be the low point of his career Ellis lost a split decision to Don Fullmer in between fighting Benton and Carter. Discouraged and thinking about retirement, Ellis wrote a letter to Muhammad Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee and asked if he would train him. Dundee agreed to do so and became Ellis’ manager and trainer. Jimmy won eight straight bouts (with six being on the undercard of Ali title bouts) under Dundee, with the final being a first round knockout over the highly touted prospect Johnny Persol on the Muhammad Ali vs. Zora Folley title bout undercard. Ali’s seventh round knockout of Folley was his last fight of the sixties and he was stripped of his undisputed title a month later for refusing military induction. Ali’s removal from boxing led the World Boxing Association to set up an elimination tournament between the top eight heavyweight contenders to determine Ali’s successor.

Ellis was ranked eighth at the time and was the underdog in every fight he participated in during the tournament. Joe Frazier refused to enter the tournament and was replaced by Leotis Martin who at 24-1 had the best record among the eight fighters vying for the title. Ellis battered and cut Martin’s face in his first fight of the tournament and was declared the winner when the bout was halted in the ninth round.

In his second tournament bout he hurt and dropped Oscar Bonavena twice enroute to a unanimous decision victory. Incidentally, Ellis had much less trouble overwhelming Bonavena than both Ali and Frazier did when they rumbled with Oscar.

In the tournament final Ellis captured the WBA title with a 15-round majority decision over Jerry Quarry. Ellis used his sharp jab to offset the favored Quarry’s counter-punching and let his hands go more freely to win rounds. Five months later Ellis successfully defended the title in Sweden against former champ Floyd Patterson via a 15-round points decision, although some observers thought Floyd may have deserved the nod. Ellis suffered a broken nose against Patterson and was inactive for over a year after the fight.

Then he was scheduled to defend the WBA title against British Champ Henry Cooper, but the BBBC wouldn’t sanction the fight because they were affiliated with the WBC. The fight was on and off, then Cooper hurt his knee training and that canceled it for good. Ellis was then scheduled to defend the title against Argentine Gregorio Peralta in Argentina, but the bout was canceled 24 hours before it was to take place by the promoters due to poor ticket sales.

Finally, after 17 months of inactivity Ellis fought undefeated “Smokin” Joe Frazier for the undisputed title. Frazier was on a roll at the time and was recognized as the WBC title holder along with holding the state titles of New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, Illinois, Texas and Massachusetts. Ellis and Dundee said before the fight that Jimmy would box Frazier and not fall into the trap of going toe-to-toe with Joe like his previous opponents were forced to. However, Jimmy had too much heart and willingness and not quite enough firepower to keep Frazier from forcing the fight. After getting the better of Frazier in the first two rounds, he succumbed to Joe’s aggression and power, going down twice in the fourth round. The left hook that Frazier dropped Ellis with the second time in the fourth round is probably the best punch Joe ever landed in his career with the exception of the one he dropped Ali with a year later. Jimmy beat the count but was in no condition to continue and Dundee wisely stopped the fight as the bell sounded to start the fifth round. Unfortunately Ellis was too small for Frazier and had the misfortune of fighting him on the second best night of his career.

Ellis won three bouts after the Frazier fight and then met his childhood buddy Muhammad Ali, with Angelo Dundee working his corner due to Angie being his manager and trainer, whereas he was only Ali’s trainer. Jimmy thought he needed speed to handle Ali and weighed in at 189 for the fight, 35 pounds less than Muhammad. For three rounds Ellis gave as good as he took, but in the fourth round he was hurt by a right hand and Ali was pretty much in control after that. Ellis never went down against Ali but by the middle of the 12th round Ali was knocking him all over the ring and the referee stopped the bout with Ellis against the ropes on rubbery legs.

After losing to Ali, Ellis won eight straight bouts by knockout and then met the hottest fighter in the division, knockout sensation Earnie Shavers 44-2 (43). Once again Jimmy’s heart and courage got in the way. In the first round Ellis hurt Shavers badly and had him on the verge of going out. After being forced to break from a clinch, Shavers put his left hand around Ellis’ head and held him as he unloaded a pulverizing right uppercut to Jimmy’s chin. The punch dropped Ellis and despite desperately trying to beat the count, he didn’t, and the fight was over.

After losing to Shavers, Ellis went 2-4-1 and retired. Three of his four losses were to contenders Ron Lyle, Joe Bugner and Joe Frazier again, and only Frazier stopped him, but this time Joe needed nine rounds to do it.

Jimmy Ellis was a real man and fighter.

He never tried to be Ali and never got sucked into the Ali vortex. He never drew attention to himself when he could’ve lashed out and complained about being often referred to as Ali’s sparring partner and understudy by the media. But the fact is, Ellis and Ali fought nothing alike. Jimmy was a counter-puncher and on many nights he fought as a boxer-puncher. Ellis didn’t set out to win by decision, he went for the knockout and it didn’t matter a bit to him who the fighter was in the other corner. No, Jimmy Ellis wasn’t an all-time great heavyweight fighter, but how many are? But he did win a piece of the title and successfully defended it during a time when it really meant something in boxing. How many fighters can say that? I’ll tell you who can’t say that, Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo, Oscar Bonavena, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers and Ken Norton.

Ellis beat some really good fighters during his era and only lost to two all-time greats in Frazier and Ali when he was at or near his prime fighting as a heavyweight. And getting knocked out by Shavers, (who some believe is the hardest hitting heavyweight in history) at the end of his career after almost knocking him out is no disgrace.

All that being said, the thing that stands out most to me about Ellis is how he fought with so much courage and confidence every time out. Jimmy was fearless and much harder and physically tougher than most remember him being, because he was so laid back and easy going. It didn’t matter if it was Martin, Bonavena, Quarry, Frazier, Ali, Shavers or Lyle, Ellis didn’t back down or away from anyone. You can go back and watch all of his big fights against the monsters I just named and you won’t find a second of footage where Jimmy looks intimidated, scared or like he wants out. And he was physically smaller and lighter than everyone of those fighters. In every fight of Jimmy’s career, when he got nailed with something of consequence, he came back firing. In some fights it was his undoing but in other fights, against Quarry, Bonavena, Martin, Patterson and Lyle, it prevented them from taking their liberties with him and either tilted the fight in his favor or kept him in a bout that he was closely trailing.

Jimmy Ellis was not only a good man who was liked by all who met him, but he was the personification of confidence and courage in what many have referred to as the cruelest and most unforgiving sport of all.

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com

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2015 Fight of the Year – Francisco Vargas vs Takashi Miura

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The WBC World Super Featherweight title bout between Francisco Vargas and Takashi Miura came on one of the biggest boxing stages of 2015, as the bout served as the HBO pay-per-view’s co-main event on November 21st, in support of Miguel Cotto vs Saul Alvarez.

Miura entered the fight with a (29-2-2) record and he was making the fifth defense of his world title, while Vargas entered the fight with an undefeated mark of (22-0-1) in what was his first world title fight. Both men had a reputation for all-out fighting, with Miura especially earning high praise for his title defense in Mexico where he defeated Sergio Thompson in a fiercely contested battle.

The fight started out hotly contested, and the intensity never let up. Vargas seemed to win the first two rounds, but by the fourth round, Miura seemed to pull ahead, scoring a knock-down and fighting with a lot of confidence. After brawling the first four rounds, Miura appeared to settle into a more technical approach. Rounds 5 and 6 saw the pendulum swing back towards Vargas, as he withstood Miura’s rush to open the fifth round and the sixth round saw both men exchanging hard punches.

The big swinging continued, and though Vargas likely edged Miura in rounds 5 and 6, Vargas’ face was cut in at least two spots and Miura started to assert himself again in rounds 7 and 8. Miura was beginning to grow in confidence while it appeared that Vargas was beginning to slow down, and Miura appeared to hurt Vargas at the end of the 8th round.

Vargas turned the tide again at the start of the ninth round, scoring a knock down with an uppercut and a straight right hand that took Miura’s legs and sent him to the canvas. Purely on instinct, Miura got back up and continued to fight, but Vargas was landing frequently and with force. Referee Tony Weeks stepped in to stop the fight at the halfway point of round 9 as Miura was sustaining a barrage of punches.

Miura still had a minute and a half to survive if he was going to get out of the round, and it was clear that he was not going to stop fighting.

A back and forth battle of wills between two world championship level fighters, Takashi Miura versus “El Bandido” Vargas wins the 2015 Fight of the Year.

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Jan 9 in Germany – Feigenbutz and De Carolis To Settle Score

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This coming Saturday, January 9th, the stage is set at the Baden Arena in Offenburg, Germany for a re-match between Vincent Feigenbutz and Giovanni De Carolis. The highly anticipated re-match is set to air on SAT.1 in Germany, and Feigenbutz will once again be defending his GBU and interim WBA World titles at Super Middleweight.

The first meeting between the two was less than three months ago, on October 17th and that meeting saw Feigenbutz controversially edge De Carolis on the judge’s cards by scores of (115-113, 114-113 and 115-113). De Carolis scored a flash knock down in the opening round, and he appeared to outbox Feigenbutz in the early going, but the 20 year old German champion came on in the later rounds.

The first bout is described as one of the most crowd-pleasing bouts of the year in Germany, and De Carolis and many observers felt that the Italian had done enough to win.

De Carolis told German language website RAN.DE that he was more prepared for the re-match, and that due to the arrogance Feigenbutz displayed in the aftermath of the first fight, he was confident that he had won over some of the audience. Though De Carolis fell short of predicting victory, he promised a re-vamped strategy tailored to what he has learned about Feigenbutz, whom he termed immature and inexperienced.

The stage is set for Feigenbutz vs De Carolis 2, this Saturday January 9th in Offenburg, Germany. If you can get to the live event do it, if not you have SAT.1 in Germany airing the fights, and The Boxing Channel right back here for full results.

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2015 Knock Out of the Year – Saul Alvarez KO’s James Kirkland

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On May 9th of 2015, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez delivered a resonant knock-out of James Kirkland on HBO that wins the 2015 KO of the Year.

The knock-out itself came in the third round, after slightly more than two minutes of action. The end came when Alvarez delivered a single, big right hand that caught Kirkland on the jaw and left him flat on his back after spinning to the canvas.Alvarez was clearly the big star heading into the fight. The fight was telecast by HBO for free just one week after the controversial and disappointing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fight, and Alvarez was under pressure to deliver the type of finish that people were going to talk about. Kirkland was happy to oblige Alvarez, taking it right to Alvarez from the start. Kirkland’s aggression saw him appear to land blows that troubled the young Mexican in the early going. Alvarez played good defense, and he floored Kirkland in the first round, displaying his power and his technique in knocking down an aggressive opponent.

However, Kirkland kept coming at Alvarez and the fight entered the third round with both men working hard and the feeling that the fight would not go the distance. Kirkland continued to move forward, keeping “Canelo” against the ropes and scoring points with a barrage of punches while looking for an opening.

At around the two minute mark, Alvarez landed an uppercut that sent Kirkland to the canvas again. Kirkland got up, but it was clear that he did not have his legs under him. Kirkland was going to try to survive the round, but Alvarez had an opportunity to close out the fight. The question was would he take it?

Alvarez closed in on Kirkland, putting his opponent’s back to the ropes. Kirkland was hurt, but he was still dangerous, pawing with punches and loading up for one big shot.

But it was the big shot “Canelo” threw that ended the night. Kirkland never saw it coming, as he was loading up with a huge right hand of his own. The right Alvarez threw cracked Kirkland in the jaw, and his eyes went blank. His big right hand whizzed harmlessly over the head of a ducking Alvarez, providing the momentum for the spin that left Kirkland prone on the canvas.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez went on to defeat Miguel Cotto in his second fight of 2015 and he is clearly one of boxing’s biggest stars heading into 2016. On May 9th Alvarez added another reel to his highlight film when he knocked out James Kirkland with the 2015 “Knock Out of the Year”.

Photo by naoki fukuda

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