By Shane Keeling: For those of you who are old enough cast your mind back to when you were 19 years of age. Cool parties, hot girls, cars, bikes and freedom, in any combination. Not long out of school, you had a job, perhaps an apprenticeship or maybe you were still studying at college. Fit, strong and free-spirited, you were starting to forge your own path in life. Even so, at 19 you are still just a boy really, especially in a hard man’s world that is pro boxing. At just 19 years of age and with a record of 14-0 (10 KO’s) Australia’s Lester Ellis became the IBF Super Featherweight world champion. He joined a pantheon of teenage world conquerors that include Lionel Rose (19), Ben Villaflor (19), Pipino Cuevas (18), Tony Canzoneri (18), Hiroki Ioka (18) and Wilfred Benitez (17)..
Tall and lean for his weight, Ellis was a supremely fit, fast and aggressive boxer with the killer instinct of a cold blooded hit man. He threw powerful four and five punch combinations and went to the body hard. He had the ‘mongrel’ in him, as we say in Australia, a mean streak that fueled a desire to knock out every opponent fast. His rage stemmed from being abandoned as a 10 year old boy and his ferocity made the ‘Master Blaster’ a formidable opponent right from the start.
In Melbourne, Australia on Feb 15 1985, Lester went 15 brutal rounds defeating South Korea’s ominously named IBF Super Featherweight champion, Hwan Kil Yuh, 25-1-3 (11 KO’s). The Seoul man was no slouch either having also been the WBC’s number one contender for Wilfredo Gomez’s featherweight title. No-one would go near him. “He was a mental bastard, a real hard nut” as Lester affectionately describes him.
Ellis was now a teenage world champion, some achievement considering he had yet to challenge for a Victorian state title, let alone a national belt. No Australian champion dared to enter a ring with him, so national honors were pushed aside for a shot at the Commonwealth Junior Lightweight title. On Nov16 1984 a 19 year old Ellis defeated powerful Zambian warrior John Sichula over 12 rounds to become the Commonwealth champion. This led to Kil Yuh’s people selecting Lester, or ‘the schoolboy’ as they nicknamed him, as an easy voluntary defense. Bad decision.
But how do you teach a teenager like Lester to handle success? “I went from having fifty bucks in my pocket to having a hundred and fifty thousand” Ellis recalls. Overnight, Lester went from a virtual unknown to becoming one of the most recognized faces in Australia and along with the adulation came the usual distractions.
Still only 19, Lester defended his world title just nine weeks after winning the belt, notching a 13 round TKO victory in another war over tough Filipino Rod Sequenan, 43-9-3 (27 KO’s) going in. Rod had previously lost on points to Kil Yuh for the vacant IBF title.
Just another ten weeks later came defense number two against fellow Australian Barry Michael, who at 29 had a veteran’s record of 44-8-3 (13 KO’s). Michael had just beaten the previously undefeated and highly touted Aussie Graeme Brooke and Miami’s Juan Arroyo.
Lester and Barry had been long time mates dating back to when Ellis was just a 13 year old novice. Michael took the angry young puncher under his wing and the two sparred regularly as Lester developed into a dominant national amateur champion. Over the years they became good mates, respectful of each others abilities. However, things got dirty when Barry refused to spar with Lester during his training for the upcoming world title fight against Kil Yuh. Ellis the pupil, was handed the golden opportunity that had long escaped his veteran teacher and Barry wasn’t too happy about it. It boiled over when Michael taunted Ellis, daring Lester to defend his title against him. “Man against boy, teacher against pupil” as Barry put it. Lester, still seething at Michael’s earlier cold shoulder, fired up and accepted the challenge, even though he could’ve chosen an easier voluntary defense.
Barry got inside Lester’s head right from the start. During the media build-up he’d warn Ellis “I’ve taught you everything you know but not everything I know”. Ellis hit back with the guarantee “I’ll just blow the old guy away, I’m too fast, too strong”. Lester respected the cagey veteran’s experience and tough, relentless style but he was now an undefeated world champion, just out of his teens and bulletproof. He couldn’t lose.
Lester was backed by Alf Gangitano, a notorious Melbourne underworld figure and member of the Carlton crew. Barry had heavy support from the Melbourne Dockers, a union of brothers. So an intense, heated stage was set with the rabid crowd split right down the middle. In an unforgiving back and forth brawl, neither fighter gave any quarter but Michael’s maturity won out, claiming Lester’s world title on points after 15 rounds of spiteful battle. They embraced at the end but both boxers left the ring badly bruised and battered. ”The first time Sugar Ray Leonard fought Duran he fought the way I fought Barry Michael” laments Ellis. Lester simply fought the wrong fight, abandoning his jab and electing to prove his manhood, this cost the more skilful boxer his cherished title. “I would’ve won fights easier if I’d used my jab, I focused on body punches, and putting four or five together in one second” Lester reflects. Ellis would torture himself throughout the remainder of his career over the rematch that never materialized. A guy named Anguish became his toughest opponent.
At just 20 years of age Ellis was now an ex- world champion. In 1987 he was the WBC’s number one contender for Azumah Nelson’s title but Nelson’s people had little interest in fighting him. In 1988 he was also the number one contender for Roger Mayweather’s lightweight title but Mayweather’s camp demanded too much money and the fight never came off. Ellis also pursued a fight with Hector Camacho in New York to no avail. However, this road eventually lead him to a Puerto Rican gym where he trained for a proposed fight in San Juan. It was here, after fending off numerous sparring partners with orders to kill that Lester KO’d the great Edwin Rosario in two rounds. Little wonder a world title opportunity continued to elude him.
Ellis went on to win the Australian Lightweight title in April 87 defeating Dale Artango KO6, the Australian Light Welterweight title in March 88 defeating Pat Leglise KO5. He also won the Commonwealth Light Welter title in Aug 88 against the UK’s Tony Laing W12. Three weeks prior to this Ellis fought Japanese lightweight champion Iwao Otomo, winning a 10 round decision.
Alcohol became a factor in Lester’s life at 26 when he and his wife lost everything they owned due to bad investment advice.
He went on to win the lightly regarded WBF Welterweight title in Feb 93, KO2 Rocky Berg, the IBO Light Welterweight title in Dec 94, KO1 Al Coquilla, the IBO Lightweight title in Mar 95,W12 Amando Cabato and the IBO Light Middleweight title in Jul 95 W12 Eric Alexander. By the mid nineties and at almost 30, Ellis was drinking around the clock.
In April 96 Lester dropped 55 lbs in nine weeks to make lightweight for a rematch with Calvin Grove, who won their first ten rounder on points. This time Ellis lost by TKO in the fourth and promptly retired from boxing. However, he returned six years later and 35 lbs heavier at age 37 to face ex-rugby league star Anthony Mundine at super middleweight. Still battling the grog, Lester recalls “The night I fought Mundine, I went into the ring with an alcohol level of .05”. Ellis lost by TKO in the third and has been retired ever since.
Lester is now a recovering alcoholic who has been to the edge and back but has drawn upon a strength of character necessary in rebuilding his life. He is now a fighter at peace.
The Master Blaster ended his career with a respectable record of 41 (28KO’s) – 8 (5TKO’s). “I wish I’d won a title at 25 instead of 19” Ellis reflects. Perhaps things would have turned out differently.