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Ex-heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell dies at 75

Muhammad Ali playfully throws a punch in the

Muhammad Ali playfully throws a punch in the direction of Ernie Terrell at a prefight medical examination in Houston on Feb. 1, 1967. Terrell, whose brief reign as heavyweight champion ended with a punishing loss to Muhammad Ali in a 1967 grudge match, died Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in Chicago. He was 75. Credit: AP

Ernie Terrell, whose brief reign as heavyweight champion ended with a punishing loss to Muhammad Ali in a 1967 grudge match, has died. He was 75.

He died Tuesday in Chicago of complications from Alzheimer's disease, according to his wife, Maxine.

The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, the longtime Chicago resident worked as a fight promoter after his boxing career ended and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.

Terrell's big break came in 1965, when he fought Eddie Machen for the World Boxing Association title that was declared vacant after Ali insisted on a rematch with Sonny Liston before fighting a WBA-mandated contender.

Terrell, who stood 6-6, won a unanimous decision over Machen and defended his crown against George Chuvalo and Doug Jones. In 55 professional fights, he was 46-9 with 21 knockouts.

Terrell's tenure at the top of the fight game was controversial, though, because most of the boxing world considered Ali -- who still held the World Boxing Council crown at the time -- the true heavyweight champion. A bout between the two finally was arranged for February, 1967, at the Astrodome, but the fireworks began long before they stepped into the ring.

By then, Ali had converted to Islam and no longer went by his birth name, Cassius Clay. But Terrell repeatedly referred to him as "Clay." It was the same tactic used by Floyd Patterson ahead of his fight with Ali, and it resulted in Terrell suffering the same brutal beating Ali administered to Patterson.

"I had a great chance to win that fight," Terrell recalled in the book "Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World." "I was bigger than Ali at that point. But during the second round of the fight, we got caught in a headlock, and he took his thumb, and he poked it in my eye. After that," his account continued, "it looked like I was fighting two Alis."

After the Ali bout, Terrell lost to Manuel Ramos and Thad Spencer and retired in 1967. He returned to the ring in 1970 with a string of wins before losing back-to-back fights against Chuck Wepner and Jeff Merritt, retiring for good in 1973.

With a strong background in music -- Terrell's sister, Jean, succeeded Diana Ross with the Supremes -- Terrell made the transition to the entertainment business soon afterward. His group, Ernie Terrell and the Heavyweights, was featured on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and headlined Las Vegas lounge shows. Terrell's friend, Mike Joyce, the boxing coach at Leo High on the city's South Side and coincidentally, Ali's son-in-law, told the Sun-Times that Terrell made more money playing music than he did in the fight game.

"He had a lot of heart," Joyce said. "Obviously, he took some beatings. He was just a strong, nice person."

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