Ernie Terrell, whose brief reign as heavyweight champion ended with a punishing loss to Muhammad Ali in a 1967 grudge match, died Tuesday in Chicago of complications from Alzheimer's disease, his family said. He was 75.
The son of Mississippi sharecroppers and a longtime Chicago resident, Terrell worked as a fight promoter after his boxing career ended. He also twice ran unsuccessfully for alderman of his far South Side neighborhood and built a janitorial company that eventually employed 100 people.
Terrell's big break came in 1965, when he met Eddie Machen for the World Boxing Assn. title that was declared vacant after Ali insisted on a rematch with Sonny Liston before fighting a WBA-mandated contender. Terrell, who stood 6 feet 6 and deployed a withering jab with his 82-inch reach, won a unanimous 15-round decision over Machen and defended his crown against George Chuvalo and Doug Jones. In 55 professional fights, he posted a 46-9 record 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 was finally arranged for February 1967 at the Astrodome in Houston, 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, who had known him for years, 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 had administered to Patterson.
"You just act just like an old Uncle Tom," Ali said leading up to the bout. "I'm gonna punish you."
Ali was as good as his word, mercilessly pummeling Terrell during a 15-round decision while peppering him with the taunt "What's my name?" Terrell said afterward that neither Ali's punches nor his insults had as big an impact on the fight as what happened during an early clinch.
"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."
Though the fighters remained friends, Terrell repeated his contention that Ali purposefully stuck a thumb in his eye, telling the Chicago Sun-Times in a 2009 interview, "I never forgave him." But in an interview with USA Today that same year, he also expressed some regret over his decision to refer to Ali as Clay.
"We were fighting. What was I supposed to do, give him Christmas gifts?" Terrell recalled.
After the Ali bout, Terrell lost to Manuel Ramos and Thad Spencer and announced his retirement 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. He was inducted into boxing's Hall of Fame in 2004.
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.
In addition to his sister Jean, Terrell's survivors include his wife, Maxine; a son, David Anderson; a daughter, Deborah Anderson; two other sisters, Geniver Hines and Lovie Mickens; and his brothers Jimmie, J.C., Julius and Lenon.