By Thom Loverro
Two years into Muhammad Ali's exile from boxing, talks took place between the deposed champion and World Boxing Association heavyweight title holder Jimmy Ellis to fight in a pay-per-view event, according to an FBI document obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The bout would've been fought without an audience at a Miami television studio -- and ABC broadcaster Howard Cosell was named as one of the negotiators.
Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the U.S. Army at the height of the Vietnam War. He had been unable to get licensed in any jurisdiction and was essentially exiled from boxing until his comeback fight in 1970 against Jerry Quarry, three years after his last bout, a win over Zora Folley.
During that time, Ali toured the country as a college speaker, appeared in a Broadway show called "Buck White" and looked for opportunities to earn a living while his appeal of his draft evasion conviction made its way through the courts.
Bu his team was looking for a loop hole. According to the Dec. 8, 1969, report, both Herbert Muhammad (the son of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam) and Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee were involved in trying to set up the fight.
"The individuals involved hope such an arrangement will circumvent boxing commission bars concerning [Cassius] Clay's boxing," the report states, using the boxer's original name. "They feel there is no law or regulation which states two men cannot fight and have the fight shown on closed [circuit] television."
Perhaps the most striking part of the FBI report is that "Howard Cosell of the American Broadcasting Company's television station in New York City is alleged to be negotiating this title match, and, if all goes as planned, Cosell will receive $50,000 for his efforts."
If true, such a payment would have been a major conflict of interest for Cosell and may have destroyed his career if it had been revealed before he would become famous as a member of the Monday Night Football broadcast booth in 1970.
Ali is suffering from Parkinson's disease. Ellis has pugilistic dementia. Cosell died in 1995, while Dundee passed away in 2012.
Cosell was an ardent Ali supporter in his legal battle against his draft evasion conviction. The two became so connected to each other in the public eye that several years ago, author (and Sports on Earth contributor) Dave Kindred wrote a book called, "Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship," about the relationship between Ali and Cosell.
The proposed fight never took place. Ellis -- a former sparring partner of Ali's -- won the WBA crown in an elimination tournament in 1968 after Ali was stripped of the title, defeating Jerry Quarry in a 15-round majority decision to become WBA champion. He would lose the belt two years later in a fifth-round knockout by Joe Frazier, who had won a version of the heavyweight championship recognized in New York and five other states.
Ali would fight again in 1970, when he was granted a boxing license in Atlanta while his legal appeal continued, and stopped Jerry Quarry in three rounds. According to Mark Ribowsky, author of "Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports," Cosell wanted to call the Ali-Quarry fight on closed-circuit television, but an attorney involved in the production thought Cosell made a "ridiculous" money demand for the job.
"You'll pay that, kid, or you won't have anyone," Cosell told the attorney, according to Ribowsky. Former football player Tom Harmon called the closed-circuit bout, while Cosell called the action on a delayed basis for ABC's "Wide World of Sports."
After another win against Oscar Bonavena in 15 rounds, Ali and Frazier, both undefeated, met in the epic "Fight of the Century" on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. Frazier won that fight in a 15-round decision. Three months later, Ali and Ellis, both from Louisville, did fight, with Ali stopping his former sparring partner in 12 rounds at The Astrodome in Houston.
A fight between Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Ellis two years earlier in a Miami television studio might well have changed the history leading up to that historic Ali-Frazier fight.
Thom Loverro is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who has covered sports in the nation's capital for two decades. He also co-hosts a sports talk radio show on ESPN 980 in Washington and is the author of 11 books.