BOZICH | Ultimate love: Jimmy Ellis' brother cherishes invitatio - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Ultimate love: Jimmy Ellis' brother cherishes invitation to be Ali pallbearer

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Jerry Ellis shared his memories of his friend, Muhammad Ali, Tuesday. Jerry Ellis shared his memories of his friend, Muhammad Ali, Tuesday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Champ or chump?

That was the joke that stretched for decades between Muhammad Ali and Jerry Ellis, the younger brother of Jimmy Ellis, himself a heavyweight champion as well as a friend and sparring partner of Ali.

It was the Astrodome, Houston, Texas, July 26, 1971, Ali's first bout after his epic defeat to Joe Frazier four months earlier.

Ali vs. Ellis, Louisville vs. Louisville, Friend vs. Friend.

Jerry Ellis became friends with Ali when Ellis was 6, but on this night he was parked not far from his brother’s corner, just another heckler trying to distract The Greatest from doing his determined work.

"Ali was fighting Jimmy and I said, 'Hey chump,'" Jerry Ellis said Tuesday. "He looked over and kind of cut his eyes and sort of smiled.

"The next day (after Ali won on a 12th round TKO) he said, 'You called me Chump yesterday.' I said, 'No, I didn't. I called you Champ.'"

A smile and the memory made Ellis’s eyes dance again.

"I'm never confessing," he said. "He was always Champ."

They laughed about the moment for years -- Champ or Chump? Chump or Champ? -- the way friends laugh about crazy exchanges like that.

Jerry Ellis will tell you that his first memory of Ali was watching him train with Jimmy Ellis at the Columbia Gym in Louisville.

"After they would train, he would hoist me on his shoulders and run around the gymnasium with me on his shoulders and hang on to my little arms and little legs," Ellis said. "He nicknamed me, 'Little Ellis.'"

Little Ellis will serve with actor Will Smith, boxer Lennox Lewis and five others as pallbearers at Ali's funeral Friday. (Jimmy Ellis died in May 2014). 

Lonnie Ali asked if Ellis would honor his friend after the family returned from Phoenix Sunday. Days later Ellis remained emotional discussing his friend.

"That's the ultimate way to show my love and respect, not only for Ali, but for his family, his wife and everything that he's meant to us, the Ellis family, and to the whole world because I truly loved the man," Ellis said.

"It's the biggest event (of his life). My brother was the world champion. That was a big event. But (the funeral) is the biggest event and the biggest honor that I will ever achieve in life. I really believe that. I may be successful and make money doing other things. This will always be a part of my soul.

I’ve stayed awake on it. I can't think of anything that can happen in my life that will be more fulfilling than to actually honor this man because of all he’s achieved and all that he did for my family. People just don't know how good he has been to Jimmy’s family and how much we love him and his family for giving us the opportunity to be a part of their family.

"Very emotional. Very emotional. It’ll stay with me for awhile."

Memories? Jerry Ellis has hundreds.

Ellis attended all five of Ali’s professional bouts in Louisville, from October 1960 through November 1961 when the fighter’s name was Cassius Clay. Half the crowd wanted Clay to win, the other half wanted somebody to shut Clay’s mouth. "You'd see a lot of people slam their programs to the ground after he'd win the fight," Ellis said.

He knew the fighter's parents -- Cassius and Odessa Clay. Ellis said Ali drew his competitive spirit from his father, but his sweet and kind nature from his mother. Ali often asked him to look after Cassius Sr. on the road.

If you were in the Ali inner circle, you were where the celebrities gathered. Diana Ross. James Brown, Mr. T. Petula Clark. Tom Seaver. Lou Rawls. Joe Morgan. Ellis met them all -- except the Beatles.

"I didn’t meet the Beatles," he said. "They came to Miami frequently, but every time they were in Miami, I was in Louisville."

But one thing Jerry Ellis saw that others did not see was how relentlessly the fighter worked at his craft. "When he was younger he was more like a nerd," Ellis said. "He wasn’t one of those guys who went out and partied. He was serious.

"Ali was the most dedicated person that I think any of us knew. When he was a youngster, he took it seriously. The other kids would go to the gym and they’d miss two or three days. They would go party. Ali never did that. Ali was very disciplined when he was younger. Ali had a goal. And Ali always worked toward the goal.

"He was determined to be the Greatest. Just as soon as the door opened, he flew through it. He had super stardom because of his dedication and because of his hard work and because of his willingness to put in the hours, he was very successful and in a hurry."

Definitely a champ and not a chump -- a champ that Jerry Ellis is thankful to honor.

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