The Time Tunnel: When Jimmy Ellis Upset Leotis Martin

08.06.04 - by Mike Dunn: The date is August 5, 1967, and the site is the Houston Astrodome. The eight-man elimination tournament set up by the World Boxing Association begins today with a doubleheader featuring Jimmy Ellis vs. Leotis Martin and Thad Spencer vs. Ernie Terrell. Both fights are scheduled for 12 rounds and are being televised on Wide World of Sports.

Ellis (26-5) is known as Muhammad Ali's sparring partner and, perhaps because of that, he doesn't seem to get the respect he's due. Yancey Durham, the trainer of Leotis Martin, calls Ellis "a three-round fighter." Ellis has quick hands and an excellent 1-2 combination. His punches are crisp and hard. Coming into this encounter, Ellis has won eight straight and six of them have been one-round knockouts. The most significant of the one-round knockouts was against Johnny Persol, a would-be contender trying to make the jump from the light-heavyweight ranks. The rap on Ellis is that he tires after the fifth round. Maybe that is why Martin is favored, even though Martin was the last man selected for the tournament, a replacement for Joe Frazier, who opted out of it.

Martin (24-1) has the best record of anyone in the tourney, but he doesn't have a lot of big names on his docket. Two of his biggest wins were knockouts against Sonny Banks and Amos Johnson. (In a ring tragedy, Banks died from blows suffered in his loss to Martin.) Leotis is a converted southpaw with a hard left jab and hook. He is considered to be tough and durable and a fighter on the rise.

The 10-round point system is in effect in Houston. Ellis weighs 194 1/2 lbs. and Martin weighs 192.

Here's the fight as I saw it.

Round 1 - Ellis lands a solid left hook in an early exchange. Ellis is coming after Martin. Ellis lands a right cross flush on Martin's jaw and Martin staggers around the ring! Will he survive the round? Ellis pounds with both fists, but Martin is savvy and holds him off. Just when Martin seems to be recovering, he is nailed again with an Ellis right and again he wobbles. Martin retreats, clinches and holds on. He does seem to be recovered by the end of the round and, in fact, lands a good right to the body in the closing seconds. Ellis' round (10-8). Scoring: 10-8 Ellis, 1-0 in rounds.

Round 2 - Ellis is surprisingly content to jab and move. He doesn't display the aggressiveness that he did in round one. The fighters exchange hard jabs. Martin presses, seeking to land to the body. After an exchange between the fighters, Ellis' left eye has a cut above it. It appears that a Martin right does the damage, but Ellis says later it was a clash of heads. Martin pursues Ellis the rest of the round, continuing to concentrate on the body. Martin's round (10-9). Scoring: 19-18 Ellis, 1-1 in rounds.

Round 3 - Ellis is back to being the aggressor again. He comes after Martin with a steady diet of 1-2 combinations. Again, Ellis connects with a solid right! Again, Martin is staggered! Martin is forced once more to hold on while his head clears. He lasts the round, but he has another problem. He is badly cut above his upper lip and also inside his mouth. Ellis' round (10-9) Scoring: 29-27 Ellis; Ellis leads 2-1 in rounds.

Round 4 - Martin comes out with sense of purpose. Martin lands a solid hook to the body. Ellis keeps jabbing and Martin keeps pressing. Ellis again seems content to jab and move. Martin lands a hook to body and follows with a hook to the head. Ellis looks tired. Martin is bleeding again from the mouth as the round ends. Martin's round (10-9). Scoring: 38-37 Ellis; 2-2 in rounds.

Round 5 - Both fighters are off the mark. Both are holding and jabbing. After the first minute of the round, they both look tired. It's been a brisk pace for heavyweights. Suddenly, Ellis lands another good right. Martin is stunned, but not as badly as the first round or the third round. Ellis tries to follow up, but is apparently arm weary. He looks up at the clock. Martin is not sharp with his punches in this round. Ellis' round (10-9). Scoring: 48-46 Ellis; Ellis lead 3-2 in rounds.

Round 6 - Martin comes out with resolution. He goes after Ellis and throws hooks to the head and body. Martin continues to press and throw hooks to the body. It seems odd that Martin is focusing on the body when Ellis has a cut over his left eye. The cut isn't any worse now than it was in round two, but the cut above Martin's mouth appears to be getting worse with each round. Ellis is on cruise control in this round, not doing much. Again he looks tired. Martin finishes with a good flurry. Martin's round (10-9). Scoring: 57-56 Ellis: 3-3 in rounds.

Round 7 - Ellis jabs effectively. Martin comes in, throwing hooks to the body. Martin lands a solid right to the body. He is the aggressor. Martin lands a right to the body and a hook to the head. Ellis retreats. Ellis is winging right hands, but not with the authority of earlier rounds. Martin lands another right to the body. Ellis sticks and moves. When the round ends, Martin's nose is bleeding along with his mouth. Martin's round (10-9) 66-66; Martin leads 4-3 in rounds.

Round 8 - Ellis seems to have his second wind. He has more bounce. He is jabbing effectively in the early part of the round. Martin is the one who looks tired now. The fighters are mauling each other, but neither is landing crisply. Martin's nose and mouth are bleeding rather heavily as the round ends. Ellis' round (10-9). Scoring: 76-75 Ellis; 4-4 in rounds.

Round 9 - Martin's corner can't stop his nose from bleeding. He comes out gamely anyway. Ellis jabs crisply. Again, Ellis seems to have more bounce now than he did in the middle rounds. Martin pursues vainly. Martin lands a good hook to the body. Referee Ernie Taylor steps in and stops the fight at the 1:47 mark of the ninth round because of Martin's nose and mouth. Ellis is the winner by TKO.

This was an interesting bout, one in which neither fighter could get much of an edge on the other. Ellis pulled ahead early, only to have Martin rally in the middle rounds. I'm guessing that Ellis would have won a decision if the fight had gone the distance. Ellis was the stronger of the two when the ref stopped the fight and had the momentum. Martin stubbornly stayed with the body attack throughout instead of concentrating on the cut eye of Ellis. It may have cost him the fight.

Ellis went on to decision Oscar Bonavena in 12 rounds in the tourney semifinals, then defeat Jerry Quarry in 15 very dull rounds to win the WBA title. Fight fans old enough to remember that one still grimace at the thought of it. Ellis fought intelligently and did what was necessary to win.

Martin would lose a 10-round decision in his next fight to a relative unknown, a young Philadelphia heavyweight named Roger Russell. Martin's career was up and down from that point. Ironically, Martin was forced to retire after his greatest victory, a stunning ninth-round KO of Sonny Liston in December of 1969. Martin sustained a detached retina in that fight.

Mike Dunn is a boxing historian and writer living in Gaylord, Michigan.

Article posted on 08.06.2004

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