Jimmy Ellis earned recognition as a Hometown Hero in Louisville.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Muhammad Ali has his name on a boulevard that runs through the heart of this city. Denny Crum coached basketball but the Denny Crum Overpass connects the football and baseball stadiums at the University of Louisville.
Louisville has done a wonderful thing by hanging Hometown Hero photographs of famous citizens around town. That ensures residents will never forget them and reminds visitors that Pee Wee Reese, Darrell Griffith, Diane Sawyer, Rudell Stitch and others called this town home.
There is another Hometown Hero who has been forgotten – and should not be. There is another Louisvillian who has earned the next Hometown Hero recognition.
His name is Jimmy Ellis. His memory deserves a prominent place in the town he loved.
Ellis was buried Monday after his life as a championship husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, friend and boxer was celebrated during a 90-minute ceremony at Canaan Christian Church.
A pair of Ellis’ red signature Everlast boxing gloves was placed atop his silver casket, next to a beautiful display of brilliant red roses. Several hundred family members and friends celebrated and mourned, including Rahman Ali, Muhammad’s younger brother.
Muhammad Ali was unable to attend. But Ali and Ellis were friends and former sparring partners, a friendship Ali honored with an arrangement of white lilies that were placed on the altar.
Anybody who wondered just how great Ellis was only needed to watch the slide show featured on the video board before the service, especially one remarkable snapshot of five former heavyweight champions – Ellis, Ali, Joe Louis, Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson. Ellis earned his spot in that group.
“Jimmy Ellis was humble enough to know you can serve no matter who you are,” said Rev. Lance D. West during his stirring eulogy.
Ellis was 74 when he died last Tuesday. For more than a half-decade he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, a struggle his family believes began with the blows Ellis absorbed during his 15-year grind as a professional boxer.
Ellis had to fight for respect and adulation as well as prize money. It was never easy grabbing a headline, even in his hometown, when Muhammad Ali sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Ellis was Ellis. He never tried to be anything other than an earnest and loving man.
Ali and Ellis were adversaries in three fights – two as amateurs and one as professionals. Ellis won the World Boxing Association Championship in 1968 after Ali was stripped of the title for refusing induction to the U.S. military.
Although he was seeded eighth, Ellis won the three bouts necessary for the WBA title – and then defended it once against Patterson. Joe Frazier took the title from Ellis in 1970. Watch the video. Frazier knew he was in a fight.
Ellis’ mother, Jane, was not a boxing fan. She never watched one of his bouts – live or on television.
Why did Ellis keep doing it? His trademark quote was featured during the service: “I fought to feed my children.”
Over the next five years, Ellis fought Ali, George Chuvalo, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Joe Bugner and Frazier again before his career was ended by an eye injury. He won 40 of 53 professional bouts. Don’t forget this: Ellis was usually an inch or two smaller and 15-to-20 pounds lighter than most of his opponents.
But it was after his retirement when Ellis proved he was the textbook hometown hero. He could no longer fight, but Ellis could serve his hometown. He attended Central High School and grew up at Riverview Missionary Baptist Church where his father, Walter, served as the minister. There was never any mystery about where Jimmy Ellis would live his life.
“When everybody else moved away, Jimmy stayed,” Rev. West said. “Jimmy Ellis was committed. He was committed to his wife. He was committed to his family. He was committed to his hometown.
“He was a gentle man and a humble man. He had the heart of a champion but he was willing to sacrifice for others. He understood that his faith had to be in God, but he didn’t just talk about it, Jimmy demonstrated it.”
He sang in the church choir. Ellis and his wife, Mary Etta, brought their six children to Riverview where they cleaned the grounds and cut the grass. Ellis trained local fighters and organized senior citizen recreation activities for Metro Parks. That’s commitment.
From the first round to the last round, Jimmy Ellis was a Louisville guy, a guy who earned a final rousing standing ovation at his funeral Monday.
Jimmy Ellis was a hometown hero – and he deserves the Hometown Hero recognition.