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Former WBA champ Ernie Terrell dies at 75

Muhammad Ali lands a hard right on Ernie

Muhammad Ali lands a hard right on Ernie Terrell in the fourth round of their heavyweight championship fight in Houston, Tex. 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. Photo Credit: AP / Anonymous

Ernie Terrell is best remembered for 15 contentious and one-sided rounds with Muhammad Ali. But he was so much more than that.

At 6-6 with an 84-inch reach, Terrell was a sharp boxer. He was the first of the truly big and athletic heavyweight champions who eventually would become the norm in the sport.

"It was like fighting a basketball player," said George Chuvalo, who fought Terrell in 1965. "He had long arms and long legs. He was very hard to fight. He had a great jab."

Terrell also was universally liked in a sport in which friendships rarely last.

"I ran into him at an airport in Chicago in 2000," said Chuck Wepner, who fought Terrell in 1973. "We had a layover, so I got to spend some time with him. It was great to see him again. He was a very, very nice guy. Very quiet."

Terrell died on Tuesday at the age of 75. According to published reports, the cause of death was complications from Alzheimer's disease.

The son of sharecroppers, Terrell was born in Inverness, Mississippi, but the family moved to Chicago when he was in his teens. In 1957, he won the Chicago Golden Gloves light heavyweight title, but at 6-6, it wasn't long before he grew into the heavyweight division.

In 1965, the World Boxing Association ordered Ali to make a mandatory title defense. When he refused and agreed to fight a rematch with Sonny Liston, the WBA stripped him of their version of the title. Terrell won the vacant WBA title with a unanimous decision over Eddie Machen on March 5, 1965. He made two successful title defenses, decisioning Chuvalo and Bronx native Doug Jones.

Ali still was regarded as the true world heavyweight champion -- he held the World Boxing Council crown at the time -- when he met Terrell in a unification bout at the Astrodome in 1967.

The buildup for the fight turned ugly when Terrell insisted on calling Ali "Cassius Clay.'' That was his name before he changed it to Muhammad Ali shortly after winning the heavyweight title in 1964.

Ali promised to punish Terrell for disrespecting him, and he did just that. Ali battered Terrell for 15 rounds. It has been suggested that, rather than knock him out, Ali carried him for 15 rounds so he could continue to pummel him. Throughout the course of the fight, Ali repeatedly taunted Terrell by calling him an "Uncle Tom" and shouting, "What's my name?"

"We went through the Golden Gloves together, so we knew each other," Terrell said of Ali during a 2004 interview with Newsday. "I drove with him once to Louisville. I met his mother and father. All of the stuff he was talking during the fight didn't do anything to me because I knew him. But to the people who were watching it, it looked like it got out of hand. When I see him now, he's just a regular guy. We talk about old times and it's fun."

The men who swapped punches with Terrell thought it was unusual that the well-liked Terrell tried to unnerve Ali.

"I never understood what happened with him and Ali," Chuvalo said. "He was a soft-spoken guy. Not belligerent at all. I liked him very much."

Henny Wallitsch, from Maspeth, Queens, fought Terrell in 1964 and recalled him as a "gentleman."

"I have nothing but great memories of Ernie," Wallitsch said. "The thing with Ali made no sense to me because he was such a nice guy."

The key to Terrell's boxing success was his size. It was difficult to outbox him or get inside his long reach. His height also afforded him tremendous leverage on his punches, forcing opponents who attempted to smother him to pay a stiff price for their efforts.

"He was the first really good big man," said Melville's Randy Gordon, who hosts a boxing talk show with Gerry Cooney on Sirius XM radio. "He had a tremendous reach advantage over his contemporaries. Later, it was much more common to have a heavyweight champion who was 6-5 or 6-6. You had Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis. [Wladimir] Klitschko is 6-6. I really believe that if Ernie was fighting today, he would be right up there with Klitschko."

Terrell retired from boxing in 1973 with a record of 46-9 with 21 knockouts. He promoted fights in Chicago after his career and has been credited with keeping the sport going in the Windy City. Terrell was elected to the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004.

"He was a tough guy and everyone knew it," said Wepner, who beat Terrell in 1973. "He was a dominant figure in boxing, and to get a win over a guy like Terrell meant a lot to me. He was a legend."

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