CHICAGO - Ernie Terrell, 75, whose brief reign as heavyweight champion ended with a punishing loss to Muhammad Ali in a 1967 grudge match, has died.
The son of Mississippi sharecroppers and long-time Chicago resident worked as a fight promoter after his boxing career ended and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
Mr. Terrell also twice ran unsuccessfully for alderman of his South Side neighborhood and built a janitorial company that eventually employed 100 people. He died Tuesday in Chicago of complications from Alzheimer's disease, according to his wife, Maxine.
Mr. Terrell's big break came in 1965, when he met 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.
Mr. Terrell, who stood 6-foot-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.
Mr. 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, 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Terrell's 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 going to punish you."
Ali was as good as his word, mercilessly pummeling Mr. Terrell during a 15-round decision while peppering him with the taunt "What's my name?"
Mr. 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," Mr. 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."