A GIANT IN THE SHADOW OF ALI
by Jim Amato
the second best heavyweight around during the first title reign of
Muhammad Ali? A strong argument could be made for Chicago's Ernie Terrell.
Why ? Because he earned it. He was even good enough to hold the WBA
version of the heavyweight title but everyone knew who the "real" champ
turned professional in 1957. At 6'6'' he learned early how to use his
height and reach to his advantage. He developed a good jab and learned how
to tie up his opponents on the inside. It wasn't pretty but it was
effective. He won eighteen of his first twenty contests losing two eight
round split decisions to Johnny Gray. In 1960 he was outscored by the
capable Wayne Bethea. In 1962 Ernie suffered a major set back when he was
halted by the powerful Cleveland Williams.
Terrell began his march to the top in 1963 defeating Williams in a return
match and top contender Zora Folley. In 1964 Big Ernie beat Gerhard Zech,
Jefferson Davis and stopped a young Bob Foster. When the WBA stripped Ali
of his title recognition they matched Terrell with perennial contender
Eddie Machen. It was an ugly fight with a lot of wrestling and little
punching but Terrell did what he had to do to win the " vacant " title.
Maybe Ernie was not considered the real champion but he did establish
himself as the most formidable challenger to Ali. He closed 1965 with a
decision over rugged George Chuvalo. In 1966 Terrell defeated slick Doug
Jones. Finally after a failed attempt Terrell and Ali were finally matched
to unify the title. The bout would take place at the Houston Astrodome.
Ernie's bold refusal to acknowledge Ali's Muslim name and refer to him as
Clay irked Muhammad who vowed to punish Ernie. Punish he did as Ali worked
Terrell over throughout the fifteen rounder. Round after round Ali would
lash out at Terrell with punishing jabs and flurries while screaming "
what's my name ? ". To Ernie's credit he gamely absorbed the punishment
with a very swollen eye. When it was all over there was no doubt who the
King of the heavyweights was.
The WBA would later strip Ali of the title again in 1967 for refusing
induction into the Armed Forces. An eight man elimination tourney was set
up to determine Ali's successor. Ernie was one of the eight contestants
and an early favorite to win the tournament. Terrell was eliminated in the
first leg of the tourney being upset by Thad Spencer. Terrell looked to be
finished when he next lost to Mexican Manuel Ramos. He would not fight
again until 1970 and his comeback drew little interest until he scored a
major upset in 1972 by halting highly rated Jose Luis Garcia. In 1973
Ernie lost a very controversial verdict to Chuck Wepner but his career
then came crashing down when he was belted out in one round by Jeff "
Candy Slim " Merritt.
In all Terrell fought 54 times winning 45 of them. He stopped 21 foes.
Ernie suffered nine losses but was only stopped twice. Today Ernie is
remembered as a footnote to Ali's pre-exile days. In reality he was a
viable contender who was overshadowed by "The Greatest".
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