When Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the military, boxing’s ruling bodies showed scant concern for due process. Instead, they wasted little time before stripping him of his title.
And thus, began the search for someone to take mantle of heavyweight champion. In 1968, both Joe Frazier and Jimmy Ellis won versions of the heavyweight championship. Though they each wanted sole recognition, neither was in an immediate hurry to hasten a fight between them.
In truth, they had their own agendas. First, they had to attract enough interest for a fight to be financially rewarding, and another was they each wanted to solidify their claim; convince the public they were worthy holders of the title.
Writing in the New York Times about the state of the heavyweights, Robert Lipsyte may have phrased it best by describing their titles as “alleged title(s)”.
Joe Frazier (24-0 21 KOs)knocked out Buster Mathis to win the New York version of the title, then impressively rolled over Manuel Ramos, Oscar Bonavena, Dave Zyglewicz and Jerry Quarry. Only Bonavena went the distance..
The path of Jimmy Ellis (27-5 12 KOs) was through an elimination tournament that witnessed him beating contenders Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena, and then, finally Jerry Quarry to win the title. He defended it once against Floyd Patterson.
Both Ellis and Frazier knew their day of reckoning would come. To this end, they did their own brand of public relations and played it up. After Frazier knocked out Quarry in June 1969, Ellis jumped in the ring where they both mugged for the cameras.
On December 29, 1969, Joe Frazier and Jimmy Ellis signed to fight on February 16, 1970 for the undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World.
The next day, the sports page headline of the NY Daily News said it all: “Ellis, Frazier To Settle It.”
Joe Louis agreed: “This will fix up boxing. The public wants one champion.”
Frazier was installed as 6-1 favorite.
One reason for the odds was his activity. Ellis didn’t fight for 17 months—and that was seen as a potential problem. In his debatable decision victory over Patterson, Ellis suffered a busted nose which forced a layoff, and then a series of fights never materialized.
When Ellis arrived at Miami’s Fifth Street Gym, he attempted to spin the long layoff in a positive vein, saying he was in training for a fight that fell through and was already in shape. “I have to chop off only about five or six pounds to get ready for the fight.”
Three weeks before the fight, Dundee had Ellis beginning to taper off. “Right now Jimmy is like a bomb ready to go off. I’ve got to cool him off a little.”
Meanwhile, Frazier was working with his usual and seemingly endless zeal, doing two a day workouts to get down his weight. His intensity would not ebb. Instead, it just kept flowing and flowing into a powerful river.
When shadow boxing or punching the bag, Joe snorted and grunted the energy and emotion that brought him from South Carolina to Philly to the heavyweight championship.
Frazier worked, sparring with boxers and quick footed opponents. “I have sparring partners who are cute and who move, spin, grab and throw sneaky right hand leads.”
In New York, a week before the fight while working out at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum, Joe’s intensity level reached even higher. “I’m going to do things to him that nobody else ever did and put the pressure on him.”
His trainer, Yancey Durham was asked when the end would come. Without pausing, he said, Joe could take him out with a left hook or a right hand, adding “from one to 15.”
By comparison, during that same week, Ellis had light workouts— shadow boxing and skipping rope; his sparring was cut to almost nothing.
Reporters questioned his trainer, Angelo Dundee about this. Dundee said, “Jimmy’s ready. He has been training for 17 months.” He sparred about 200 rounds for the fight, and countless other rounds for fights that didn’t come off against Bob Cleroux, Henry Copper and Gregorio Peralta.
At the pre-fight physical examination, the contrast between the two men was as different as their fighting styles. Ellis was the more relaxed fighter, smiling and joking with reporters while Frazier frowned, scowled and glared.
When asked about the long odds against him, Ellis smirked, “Odds mean nothing to me. I was the underdog against Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry…”
Though outwardly relaxed, the legendary reporter Jimmy Cannon wrote that Ellis didn’t appreciate not getting the respect he felt was due him: “Ellis was bitter about the New York Boxing Commission’s subservience to Madison Square Garden, who matched Frazier with unranked Buster Mathis for the heavyweight championship.”
Ellis simply said: “I beat the contenders.”
When asked about Frazier’s pressure, Ellis said: “Guys have put pressure on me. I did pretty good with them. I’ve always been tagged with some kind of label. Once they called me a three-round fighter…then they started calling me Cassius Clay’s sparring partner.”
“My strategy will be to box and punch and do my thing. I won’t fight Frazier’s fight.”
No doubt about it, Ellis had to box Frazier to win. He received a vote of confidence from Muhammad Ali, “Ellis got a reach…is one of the prettiest boxers around. He “has to keep his left jab out, pop-pop…”
“But if he gets trapped on the ropes, Frazier can wear him down.”
On the day of the fight, Dave Anderson of the New York Times quoted Dundee on the same subject—the importance of the jab: “The jab is a setter-upper, it’s your ruler, your measuring stick. It makes the guy you’re fighting do what you want him to do.”
The fight boiled down to a classic bottom line: The fighter who wins must control the tempo.
Ellis will need that jab working full time to interrupt Frazier’s attack and to pop-shot right hands.
Frazier’s strategy will be incessant and unrelenting pressure to minimize Ellis’s craftsmanship while matching that pressure with a volume of punches.
Though the underdog, some reporters thought Ellis had more than a chance.
Lester Bromberg of the New York Post reported that at “The Garden’s pre-fight press party at Toots Shor’s last night suggest a late selectors’ swing to Ellis…”
In contradiction to the posted odds, half the writers attending the weigh-in picked Ellis.
Jimmy Cannon wrote: “The style is right…The jab might stop Frazier from working inside where he can hurt Ellis…
“The fight mob identifies Ellis as a pug who knows how the fight. This is big praise for a modern fighter. It means he has the old moves which are rare. He stands up straight and blocks punches with his quick hands and his own blows are short and accurate.”
At the weigh-in, Frazier came in at 205; Ellis 201. The crowd of 18,079 was ready for a fight between two top contenders who claimed they were champions. To the organizing bodies of boxing they were indeed title holders, but there wasn’t any doubt that Muhammad Ali was the cloud hovering over the fight for what was billed for the undisputed heavyweight “championship”.
In a real sense, Ali was in the ring with those two worthy fighters.
Though both Frazier and Ellis attempted to brush it aside, they were aware of Ali’s presence. When Frazier beat Buster Mathis for New York’s title, protestors outside of the new Madison Square Garden were proclaiming Ali as the true champion and his right to fight.
And Ellis, well, the mere fact that he was Ali’s sparring partner and was handled by Angelo Dundee was something he couldn’t get away from.
Before the fight, Ellis was asked, “In the back of your mind is Clay still champion?”
With irritation, he answered, “Clay says himself the man who is making the money is the champion.”
And, of course, the Frazier camp didn’t escape questions about Ali. One reporter asked Yancey Durham when are you going to take on Clay? He replied, “We’re only talking about Ellis now.”
Maybe Larry Merchant wrote words that best described the fight: “Joe Frazier and Jimmy Ellis, good and true professionals may give us a memorable show tonight. But they can’t give us a champion. The champion isn’t fighting.”
Round 1: Ellis was a stylist, using his strongest asset—boxing the slugger. He easily won the round, nailing Frazier with flashing lefts and rights, and looking like the fighter who beat Leotis Martin, Bonavena and Quarry.
Though Ellis looked good, the punches that twice sent Bonavena to the floor weren’t stopping Joe in his tracks.
Later, Ellis commented, “I was hittin’ him in the first, but I never did catch him with anything solid.”
Afterwards, Frazier told reporter, Milton Gross, “Maybe he did take the first round, but that didn’t mean nothing. I had command all the way…”
Round 2: Losing the first round didn’t stop Joe from his steady pressing—his smokin’. His head bobbed and weaved with hands in constant motion—jiggling into a blur that needed slow motion. The tide turned as Frazier bulled forward and began to up the volume. He swarmed Ellis, giving him little room to maneuver. Ellis grabbed more and more, trying to keep the fight in the center of the ring.
Ellis was still able to nail Frazier with some quick combinations but they didn’t stop Joe. Frazier didn’t chase, he maneuvered Jimmy to the ropes, where two left hooks had Jimmy taking a new direction home. A direction he didn’t want to go.
Before the fight, Jimmy stated, “My strategy will be to box and punch and do my thing. I won’t fight Frazier’s fight.”
But the jab wasn’t working. That had to be disheartening because boxing opponents was his ticket to where he was; to becoming champion. Ellis said, as the fight went on Frazier got lower. “I couldn’t jab him. He was hard to hit.”
Somewhere along the line, Ellis decided to roll the dice and gamble by trading blows with Frazier. Why? Maybe Frazier’s perpetual motion forced him out of his game and into a place he didn’t want to be.
In his book, “I Only Talk Winning,” Angelo Dundee summed it up, “Frazier was too strong for Jimmy.”
Round 3: Frazier upped the tempo with enthusiastic zeal, working the body with a workingman’s efficiency that forced Jimmy into more of what he didn’t want, and that was fighting Joe’s fight. Joe’s movements were quick and unpredictable, and kept Jimmy from using his left jab—his 76 inch reach to any advantage. And every time Jimmy landed a left-right, Frazier walked through it.
Frazier hurt Ellis twice with left hooks. Each time, Ellis sagged and slumped, but didn’t go down. At the bell, Joe sensed the end was near. Returning to his corner, he wore a wide smile.
Frazier was proving he wasn’t a one-dimensional straight ahead fighter. He was showing that his arsenal was loaded.
Round 4: As Joe came roaring out of his corner, throwing leather from every imaginable angle, Jimmy’s legs were walking away from the rest of his body. Jimmy tried to gather himself by clinching. It was to no avail. The monsoon of blows to body was a storm breaking Jimmy down by degrees. Again and again, Jimmy attempted to clinch. When referee Tony Perez separated them, Joe sprung right back on him, pummeling…
Then a pair of left hooks decked Jimmy, who crumbled like a building imploding to the canvas face-down. He got up only to be floored by another blistering left hook, this one swept long and wide. The bell rang…the count continued. Jimmy rose.
Round 5: Angelo Dundee refused to let Jimmy come out for the fifth round. Coming out was an unsuitable option. He was hurt, battered, and beaten.
Dundee said he stopped it because “I was talking to the guy and he wasn’t responding…He was hurt and he was fighting the other guy’s fight.”
At a post-fight press conference, Ellis thought he was down only once. Dundee said, that’s why he stopped it.
For Ellis it was a long road since 1965, when he wrote a letter to Angelo Dundee asking him to take him on. The letter included “HELP” in large letters. He had lost 3 of 4 fights and was considering retiring.
He became Ali’s sparring partner and slowly began to pile up victories, beginning in Lewiston, Maine when he knocked out Joe Blackwood in one round before Ali did the same to Liston.
As for Joe Frazier, he said, “I think I’m gonna retire until the fellow with the belt comes out of retirement.”
That would happen in fourteen months.