- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On Friday, the city of Louisville will say goodbye to the last of the four heavyweight boxing champions that came from the Kentucky city.

Muhammad Ali — the “Louisville Lip” — has become the identity of the city. There is, of course, Churchill Downs, the horse track that hosts the celebrated Kentucky Derby. And there is the Muhammad Ali Center, a multicultural center and museum dedicated to the life Ali.

They will remember that life Friday in a procession through the streets of Louisville, followed by a public memorial, with speakers scheduled to include former president Bill Clinton and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

There were no presidents or kings to say goodbye to the three other heavyweight champions who were Louisville natives. But, like Ali, who struggled with Parkinson’s disease since 1984, they were damaged from the sport that attracts presidents and kings.

The first was Marvin Hart, a plumber from Louisville who won the heavyweight championship in 1905, knocking out Jack Root in 12 rounds to win the vacant title. The man who was retiring and leaving the title vacant — James Jeffries — was the referee.


SEE ALSO: LOVERRO: Muhammad Ali embraced people, which is why we embraced him


Earlier that year, Hart had defeated one of Ali’s idols — African-American and future heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in a 20-round decision. He lost the title a year later to Tommy Burns in another 20-round decision.

Hart later opened up a bar in Louisville, but died at the age of 51 from high blood pressure and an enlarged liver.

Marvin Hart lived one year longer than Greg Page.

Page died in 2009 at the age of 50. Page won the World Boxing Association heavyweight title in 1984, when he knocked out Gerrie Coetzee in eight rounds in South Africa. He would lose the championship five months later to Tony Tubbs in a decision.

Page was a talented fighter with fast hands and was often compared to Ali early in his career. At the age of 17, Page sparred with Ali, who told the Louisville Courier-Journal, “That boy hit me so hard it jarred my kinfolks in Africa.”

But Page never achieved the greatness that was predicted for him, and had a tragic end — a final fight in 2001 in a Kentucky nightclub that left him with brain damage. He died eight years later.

His legacy? The “Greg Page Safety Initiative,” a law passed by the Kentucky legislature in 2006 that required a licensed ringside physician conduct a thorough physical examination of all fighters after fights.

The third heavyweight champion will be represented at the Ali ceremony by his brother. Jerry Ellis, the younger brother of former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis, will be one of the pall bearers. The relationship was strong between Ali and Jimmy Ellis, a former sparring partner of Ali’s who would become heavyweight champion when Ali was banned from boxing for refusing to be inducted in the U.S. Army during the draft in the Vietnam War.

“When I think of Ali, it’s an enjoyable feeling to know that someone that great and that well thought-of was a part of my growing up,” Jerry Ellis told reporters. “It is a wonderful, joyful feeling within. He was always kind, always gentle and always full of luster.”

Jimmy Ellis died two years ago at 74 — the same age as Ali when he passed away last week — after spending his final years suffering from pugilistic dementia. I spent the day with him in Louisville in 2004, when Mike Tyson fought Danny Williams at Freedom Hall.

He got into boxing after watching Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, fighting on a local amateur boxing television show. “I had a friend of mine named Donnie Hall, and he fought Ali on this show called ‘Tomorrow’s Champions,’” Ellis said. “Donnie lost, and I thought I could maybe be a fighter then.”

Ellis went with Hall to Columbia Gym, wound up sparring with Ali, and they became close friends, even though they were rivals. Ellis beat Ali in the amateur ranks but was Ali’s sparring partner in the first part of Ali’s career, before he was exiled.

Ellis helped prepare Ali for his fights and boxed on the undercard of 10 of Ali’s fights. “We got along really good,” Ellis said of his relationship with Ali. “We worked out together and got ourselves ready for fights. We were friends.”

He nearly fought his friend while Ellis was champion and Ali was in exile in a secret bout that was going to take place in a Miami TV studio — with no live audience — in a pay-per-view event to circumvent the ban against Ali being licensed to fight.

According an FBI document obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Herbert Muhammad — the son of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam — and Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, were involved in trying to set up the fight.

“The individuals involved hope such an arrangement will circumvent boxing commission bars concerning Clay’s boxing,” the report states, using the boxer’s original name. “They feel there is no law or regulation which states two men cannot fight and have the fight shown on closed [circuit] television. … Howard Cosell of the American Broadcasting Company’s television station in New York City is alleged to be negotiating this title match, and, if all goes as planned, Cosell will receive $50,000 for his efforts.”

That fight never happened, though the two friends would meet years later, after Joe Frazier had beaten both Ali and Ellis, in July 1971, when Ali stopped Ellis in 12 rounds. Ellis fought until 1975, when he was blinded in his left eye by a thumb while sparring. He retired with a record of 40-12-1 with 24 knockouts.

Ali and Ellis remained long time friends, and Ali supported his friend, during and after his career. “Jimmy was able basically to pay for his home, feed his family, do all the things a provider should do because of Ali’s support and love for Jimmy and what Jimmy provided,” Jerry Ellis told reporters.
When Jimmy Ellis passed away, Ali issued a statement about the loss he felt.

“Lonnie and I are very saddened by the loss of our friend, and fellow Louisvillian, Jimmy Ellis,” Ali said. “Our friendship began on the local Louisville boxing show ‘Tomorrow’s Champions’ and continued to grow throughout the years. … In the world of heavyweights, I have always thought that Jimmy was one of the best. … I had a kinship with Jimmy and felt like he and I were of the same cloth. He was a great athlete and a caring man. Great competitors who happen to be great friends are rare. Jimmy Ellis was that to me, and I will miss him.”

Jerry Ellis will help put to rest the last of the Louisville heavyweights. All shows the scars of their greatness as they exited this world.

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