On February 7, 1967, WBA heavyweight title holder Ernie Terrell (39-4) fought world champion Muhammad Ali (27-0) at the Hoston Astrodome, known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” back then.
Terrell, like former WBA champ Jimmy Ellis, is the other contender from the 1960s who became a title holder during the era due to Ali being stripped of the WBA belt twice, between 1964 and 1967.
The main reason Terrell became relevant was because after Ali beat reigning champ Sonny Liston for the undisputed title in early 1964, the WBA stripped Ali of their belt because he signed to give Liston an immediate rematch in violation of the WBA's rule against return title bouts. So in March of 1965, two months before Ali would meet Liston in a rematch, Terrell won a 15 round unanimous decision over top contender Eddie Machen in Chicago to win the vacant WBA title. Terrell successfully defended the title twice, against George Chuvalo and Doug Jones, and by early 1967 Ali and Terrell together pretty much cleaned out the division and were the last two standing.
Ernie Terrell was a pretty unique guy. He played the guitar and led a singing group called “The Heavyweights,” which also featured his sister Jean.
In 1970, Jean became the lead voice of The Supremes after the departure of Diana Ross.
Terrell also knew Ali as Cassius Clay from their amateur boxing days and for a short time Ernie was trained by Angelo Dundee, who was Ali's head trainer. In fact Dundee often joked that the reason why Terrell didn't have much of a right hand was because he wore it out playing the guitar.
Not much stood out about Terrell as a fighter other than his height, 6'6″ and 82 inch reach. He had a long left jab that he used offensively and defensively and that was usually enough to get him by most of the other ranked contenders of the era. Ernie wasn't much of a puncher but he had enough pop to keep his opponents from taking their liberties with him, even Ali. He also took a really good shot and was a tough minded and confident fighter, something that aided him for the 15-rounds he spent in the ring with Ali.
With Terrell's passing at age 75 last week, much has been written about his title bout against Ali 47 years ago. The fight is most noted for Ali yelling at Terrell “what's my name?” during the eighth round of the bout. At the time the name Muhammad Ali wasn't as accepted then as it became a few years later. In fact many writers and periodicals referred to Ali as Cassius Clay instead of his adopted Muslim name Muhammad Ali until the late 1960s.
Terrell knew Ali as Cassius Clay and referred to him as such in the lead up to their fight. He even went as far as to write a song using the name “Cassius Clay” and then sang it on the Hollywood Squares show that aired on February 4th 1967, three days before the fight. In one line of the song Terrell sings “ain't it a shame you changed your name – I'll change your features too.” Before that Ali and Terrell got into a scuffle at ABC studios in New York during an interview with Howard Cosell. When Terrell kept referring to Ali as Cassius Clay, Muhammad called Ernie an “Uncle Tom” and the physical altercation ensued. Ali promised that Terrell would call him by his Muslim name during the fight.
On November 23, 2009 Terrell gave an interview to Michael Falgoust of USA Today and spoke about the title fight with Muhammad Ali.
What do you remember from that experience?
What he did was grab me around the neck and started poking his thumb in my eye until he broke a vein in my eye. One eye was following him around and the eye he broke the vein in was standing in one spot. It just messed the fight up. I'm not making no excuse. I'm just telling you what happened. If that doesn't happen, I just go ahead in and beat him. If that don't happen, I think I just go in and beat him. It changed my style.
You both had animosity toward each other before the fight, and a scuffle on national TV during a faceoff in front of Howard Cosell.
I had no animosity. I understood it's a fight. What he say, all that don't count. That was his way of promoting a fight.
Would you still call him Clay, or Muhammad Ali?
If I was going to fight him, then I would call him Clay. If he don't like it, so? I did it on purpose. We were fighting. What was I supposed to do, give him Christmas gifts?
As most boxing fans know, and if you don't..the Ali-Terrell bout wasn't much of a contest. Ali probably won no less than 13 of the 15 rounds they fought and there's a good case he won every round except the second. Ali did whatever he wanted against Ernie and whenever he wanted to do it. Ali looked incredible during patches of the bout, Terrell clearly had no answer for Ali's speed (you can actually see it register on his face), and by the fourth round both guys reverted to pretty much what you'd expect of each of them.
The thought of many today, especially those who never saw the fight, is that Ali carried Terrell and that's why it went the distance thus Ali earning an overwhelming unanimous decision. Sure, Ali clearly handled and got the better of Ernie. As fighters they were on different levels. Ali circled and hit Terrell at will with blistering combinations and even went to his body more than normal. In the seventh round he really opened up and had Terrell visibly shook, but he couldn't finish him. In the eighth round Ali started yelling “what's my name” after each succession of punches, with no response from Terrell.
For the remainder of the fight Muhammad pot-shotted Terrell at will. Every so often he would go in and try to finish him and end the fight, but every time he was on the verge of really seizing control, Terrell would fire back with all he had and Ali would let up. The process would repeat itself with Ali always sensing that he wasn't going to get the stoppage and resorted back to boxing and picking Terrell apart.
In summation, Terrell took a good shot and Ali wasn't a great finisher when he had to work for it. When Ali really opened up and the opponent was no more than bewildered, he'd back off and make it look as if he could end it whenever he wanted but chose not to. He'd rather go rounds and make it look as if he was playing with his opponent instead of working hard for the stoppage unless it came to him.
No, Ernie Terrell wasn't a great fighter, but he fought everybody and he was fearless. And yes, he legitimately went the distance with Muhammad Ali in what was Ali’s eighth successful title defense. And it wasn't because Ali carried him. It was because when Ali tried to stop Terrell and knock him out he just couldn't, so he settled for dominating the fight, which he did. But don't ever believe the reason Terrell went 15 rounds with Ali is because Muhammad allowed him to or carried him just to punish him for constantly calling him Clay….accept the reality that there wasn't anything Ali could do to shorten the fight after he had his fun for the first eight or nine rounds.
Ali did vs. Terrell what he often did when he fought a guy he was beating easily but couldn't knock him out: periodically he'd turn up the heat to see whether a.) The guy had changed his mind about quitting or b.) He could con the referee into stopping it. If those things didn't work, he'd go back to what he was doing. Larry Holmes did the same thing.
It's a myth that Muhammad Ali carried Ernie Terrell for 15-rounds. And from the TSS family, rest in peace, Ernie.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com