Lost In The Shuffle

10.06.04 - By Matthew Hurley: Jimmy Ellis is a former heavyweight title holder and a man whose name is mixed within the pantheon of the terrific era of heavyweight fighters from the late sixties through the mid-seventies. He will be inducted into the Los Angeles Boxing Hall Of Fame later this month, an honor many in the boxing world feel is long overdue. Yet, in spite of that accomplishment, it’s the affliction that has now befallen this man, who shared the ring with Muhammad Ali, Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier, that has fans sadly shaking their heads and, perhaps, re-evaluating their love for a sport that has damaged so many.

The sixty-four-year old Ellis, who was heavyweight champion from April of 1968 through February of 1970 was recently diagnosed with pugilistic dementia. Often referred to, rather heartlessly, as “punch drunk syndrome” the disease has crippled many of the sport’s best fighters.

Ironically Ellis, who hails from Louisville, is the third heavyweight champ from that area to succumb to the disease. Ali and Greg Page also suffer from it’s affects. Two of Jimmy’s more celebrated opponents, Quarry and Patterson, also developed the disease in the ensuing years after their retirements.

The disease is progressive and degenerative, affecting the nervous system and a person’s memory. In it’s most severe form it is similar to Alzheimer’s disease. According to friends and his wife Mary, Jimmy began showing symptoms in the past two years. Medical experts say that heavyweight fighters are more susceptible to pugilistic dementia because of the concussive impact of a heavyweight’s punch. Yet it can take over the mind and body of lighter weight fighters as well. Wilfred Benitez, the great welterweight champion of the late seventies and early eighties also suffers from the disease.

Damage sustained in the ring is something all fighters must deal with when they enter the sport of boxing. It’s a reality that can sadly intrude upon any fighter’s life. Many people feel that Roy Jones Jr. was so affected by the life altering affects of his friend Gerald McClellan’s battle with Nigel Benn that he altered his approach to boxing and became the safety first fighter he did. McClellan remains wheel chair bound, blind and nearly deaf from that tragic bout. Michael Watson and, most recently, Greg Page nearly lost their lives in the ring. Boston’s Bobby Tomasello did lose his life, in a fight broadcast on ESPN. These are the realities of the sport. These are the risks these men take and it’s why when we see them being taken advantage of by greedy promoters and tossed aside like garbage when they lose that we as fans become outraged. A boxer engages in the toughest, most brutal sport there is and – with few exceptions – he can become a broken figure, a figure of tragedy. There is no pension plan for fighters. There are no safety nets for these men who entertain and thrill us with their skill and courage. At any level, be it elite or club fighter, they deserve so much more because they sacrifice so much.

Jimmy Ellis remains a humble, gracious man who still frequents boxing gyms giving pointers to young up and coming fighters. Always reserved in his fistic prime he now refuses to talk about the debilitating disease that threatens to rob him of cherished memories. However he remains upbeat and always flashes his charming smile.

“It doesn’t worry him,” his wife says, “so it doesn’t worry me. We just deal with it.”

It does worry his fans though, who will keep the memories of his legacy alive long after they have left him.

Article posted on 06.10.2004

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