Charlie Goldman was always dealt the big kids, the ones with the wild hands and stone legs. He gave them a hook and, with the patience of a dancing master, made their legs move, and nobody ever did his job better than Charlie Goldman. He is not in business anymore because the big kids stopped coming around. So, at 79 and in poor health, Goldman no longer is seen in his battered derby hat leaning over ropes and whispering into empty heads apothegms like: "Always finish with a left hook because dat leaves ya set to start another series of punches." Or: "Don't buy nothin' on the street, especially diamonds."
Goldman could never forget Rocky Marciano, whom he shaped out of nothing. Rubbing his gnarled little hands, the product of more than 300 fights, he acted always as if he wanted to reach out and build another Marciano. Finally, along came Oscar Bonavena. "Yeah, look at him," said Charlie, his eyes alive. "He's clumsy like Rocky was in the beginning." Goldman never had to worry about Bonavena buying diamonds on the street, but he could never even nick the lumber between Oscar's ears. Eventually, Bonavena fired Goldman, dismissing him as just a feebleminded old dreamer.
Saturday afternoon in Louisville, with the sensitivity of a mountebank, Bonavena dedicated his fight with Jimmy Ellis to Charlie Goldman. The fight was the first semifinal match of the World Boxing Association's heavyweight elimination tournament. It drew 3,000 people, and the vast Freedom Hall at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center was really just a television studio. Even so, the bout provided Ellis and Bonavena with $75,000 each and it demonstrated once again that Bonavena, who sometimes resembles a runaway beer truck, is paid more for courage than for talent.
Conveniently for the promoters, the tournament is now rid of Oscar Natalio Bonavena, among others, and everything is falling neatly into place for Sports Action Inc., ABC television, the sponsors, and the World Boxing Association, a band of confused bunglers who authorized the tournament. Ernie Terrell, a guitar player who is box-office poison, was eliminated, and then Floyd Patterson, the ever-popular Captain Ahab of boxing, got his. Sports Action has not made a dime out of its caper yet, but ABC's ratings have been quite high, thus allowing the W.B.A. to proclaim itself the savior of boxing. The promoters of each fight, except for the one bout in Germany, are not proclaiming anything.
December 11, 1967
Artistically, the tournament has been just palatable. The first two fights in Houston, Ellis vs. Leotis Martin and Terrell vs. Thad Spencer, were good, solid performances. The third bout, Bonavena vs. Karl Mildenberger, removed the German contender. The fourth match, between Jerry Quarry and Patterson, was interesting only because of Quarry, who has inspired spectators to bet not so much on his ability as on the round in which he will begin to run away.
Last week's production was hardly memorable. Ellis, a sort of picture fighter, did the best he could with Bonavena, a difficult opponent who has no style and does not fight from a right-handed or left-handed stance. Ellis did succeed in following his fight plan, which was not exactly what Muhammad Ali advised. Early on Saturday Ellis picked up the phone and it was Ali on the other end saying, "We goin' to dance, baby, dance." Ellis told his old friend, for whom he once was a sparring partner, "I'll dance, but not like you. There's more than one way to win a fight."
Ellis was going to move a little, slip, slide and wallop. The idea was to work everything off a stiff straight jab while keeping the short-armed Bonavena at a safe distance. Ellis did just that in the early rounds and owned Bonavena. "I expected Oscar to come out fast, but Bonavena kept backing up so I just went out and took charge," he explained. The first punch Ellis threw in round I discouraged the Argentinean. It was a left hook that came close, but missed.
Bonavena did not need the message translated. He was impressed by the power of the punch, and chose to back up. With two-thirds of round 3 over, Ellis caught Bonavena high on the temple with a right-hand chop, but, as at various other times during the fight, he could not find the second punch, the finisher. Bonavena went down, then rose to survive the round.
Ellis began to neglect his jab in the fifth and sixth rounds. Instead of snapping it out fully extended, he merely flicked his hand. Without the jab to contend with, Bonavena came rushing in low, battering Ellis with clumsy combinations. Ellis suffered little damage, simply because he either spun Bonavena or folded on top of him. He did, however, acquire a couple of bruises, one on the point of his right hip and the other on the inside of his thigh.
Tiring somewhat in the eighth, Ellis took a butt over the left eyelid, which later needed seven stitches. Because of his fatigue, he started lying inside too long. "Bop, bop, bop, Jimmy," shrieked Angelo Dundee, his manager, "get the hell outta there, Jimmy."
From the ninth on Bonavena went after the cut, but Ellis protected the wound (it was not deep) by grabbing in close and keeping his eye to the right on the outside of Bonavena's body. The tactic allowed Bonavena to score to the body, which was not as serious an inroad as it might have been since the Argentinean is not effective to the body. Still, Bonavena was on his way to winning the 10th when, near the ropes, he walked into a jolting left hook that sent him sagging to the floor. Bonavena recovered, seemed to slip, and then stumbled to the center of the ring. In the 11th, he thundered out after Ellis who was moving in slow motion. His punches had no zing to them, but Bonavena, now the aggressor, was no longer strong either. He did hurt Ellis, who lay on the ropes and looked absently into the lights as Bonavena flaccidly attempted to beat him to the body. Dundee berated his fighter in the corner after that round, and in the 12th Ellis jarred Bonavena with a short hook, and then seemed to hold him up. "Let him fall," screamed Chickie Ferrara, an Ellis corner man, "let the big ape drop."
It was not the first time Ellis appeared to hold Bonavena up. "Three times," said Dundee, "he does it. A bad habit. He's got to learn to let them fall."
There are several other habits Ellis must unload. He is a bad listener (meaning he does not follow instructions from his corner), and he concentrates too often on throwing one punch. "After the first knockdown," said Ellis, "I went one-punch crazy. I set nothing up." Ellis can be faulted, too, for what appears to be either a poor sense of pace or a tendency to tire easily. "It's not a physical thing," said Dundee. "He's had all sorts of tests made, and he's all right. It's a mental thing, and we'll work on it until Jimmy's kicked the problem."
Despite these failings, jimmy Ellis appears to be the best performer in the tournament, and a solid bet the rest of the way. He has style, is certain of his moves, rips hard with either hand and takes a good whack. But Dundee may have difficulty freeing Ellis from his hang-up, making him believe that he is a special person and no longer the flop who fought the best middleweights during the early '60s and took unbearable punishment trying to make the weight. More than anything, though, Dundee must make Ellis believe that he is no longer the professional sparring partner, Muhammad Ali's shadow.
The rules of a sparring partner's conduct came easily to Ellis, but they are the kind of rules that have to mark any man who has pride. Soon, the sparring partner has no identity, and he becomes a part of the scene, like the smell of wet gloves or a heavy bag. The sparring partner does not punch the light bag or skip rope while the champion is on stage. He does not interject any comment when the press is talking to the champ. He must not look for reporters but let them seek him out and, when asked a question, always remember who provides the bread and pitch for the champ. Also, he must respect the champ's privacy and position, and sit with the champ or go places with him only when asked. With Ali, Jimmy Ellis knew his place. He was the very model of a proper sparring partner.
"It was Ali's show," says Ellis. "He paid me well and treated me good. It was not my way to brag." Ellis did not have to boast because Ali did that for him. which was standard Ali; his bragging about Ellis reflected greater glory on his own limitless abilities. "Jimmy Ellis," Ali repeated often, "could beat any heavyweight in the world today but me—and he is my sparring partner."
Though the relationship between Ali and Ellis was not strained, it did not cut deep. They were never close friends. The two men belonged to different worlds, and their association really only existed because of their common boyhood in Louisville. Ali is driven by more sophisticated dreams than is Ellis. For the most part, Ellis has remained untouched by the same world and social revolution that Ali embraced and then helped to make. Certainly, there is evidence to show that Ali sought to protect his friend; he ordered the Muslims to leave Ellis alone, and little or no pressure was applied to convert him to the faith. Still, Ellis was to some degree suspect by association. Ellis thought that he might have to quit the Ali camp because of it. He discussed the problem with his father, a Baptist minister.
"I told him not to worry," says his father. "It was not important what he was accused of as long as he was certain in his own mind of who he was and what he stood for, and this has never been a problem for James."
"We were friends as kids and we are friends today," says Ellis. "Even in camp he didn't run with me, but still he helped. But we are entirely different people. His world ain't mine and mine ain't certainly his."
Privately, Ellis has always believed he could beat Ali, but he refuses to say much on the subject. His new identity is still quite strange to him, and occasionally he wonders how it will feel to be a champion. "I can't imagine how it will be," he says. "It's like a dream to me. A man wants, a man works. He hopes, but nothing ever comes. But now I know it will happen."
If the title ever does become a reality, Ellis will wear it gracefully. He is an easy man to like, not because of his humility or because he is the tenor in the Riverview Spiritual Singers of Louisville, Ky., but because he works at his mean business and he is never out to cop a plea, despite the fact that his has been a tortuous trip up from the bottom.
"When I fought Georgie Benton in Philly," he says, "I got a split-decision loss. It was the fourth one. I got $500 and a lot of equipment for the fight [a good purse for Ellis in those days]. But I was going to quit. I was bitter, for the first time. I didn't go near the gym for four months. It wasn't the loss, but what I had to go through. It was hard, harder than I ever let on to anyone. I'd get up every morning at four, run, shower, eat breakfast, go to work and handle a jackhammer for eight to 12 hours, come home, go to the gym, spar, work out. Tired? I was nothing but tired and for what? No money, split decisions. No, it didn't make sense. So my wife told me to write to Angelo Dundee. I did."
The letter read:
"I am thinking of quitting boxing, but before I do I would like one more shot to see if I could make it. I'd like to sign with a good manager in New York, if you do not think you have the time to handle my career. I hope you will be able to help me.
Ellis, of course, got help, and his next fight, the final match of the tournament, will be for $125,000. Oscar Bonavena had all the help he needed, but he never really believed there might be a boxing mind comparable to his own, and so he ignored the man who had seen in him the promise of another Marciano. One can still hear Goldman, who worked long hours to make his dream come true:
"Don't follow his head fakes, watch his body. That's it. Fake with your body, not just the head. Beautiful. Beautiful. Jab. Jab. Feint. Hook behind the jab. Now the straight right. Now, the jab. Beautiful."
Or, he told Bonavena:
"I told you not to smile in the ring. Number one, you need all the people on your side and they don't like smart alecks. But that don't matter so much as the udder ting. I told you why Sonny Liston don't smile in the ring? Years ago he was smilin' in a fight, the guy hit him and broke his jaw. When you smile, your mouth's open. People smile in the ring and they get broken jaws."
And people who smile at Charlie Goldman's advice get broken up. They also lose tournaments.