Ernie Terrell, who held a share of the heavyweight boxing championship in the 1960s but was best known for a title bout he lost in 1967 to Muhammad Ali, who taunted him throughout the brutal fight, died Dec. 16 at a Chicago hospital. He was 75.
His death was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. He had dementia.
The tall, rangy Mr. Terrell was one of the leading heavyweights of the 1960s, but he was overshadowed throughout his career by the charismatic Ali.
In 1964, Ali — then fighting under his original name of Cassius Clay — won the heavyweight championship by defeating Sonny Liston. Soon after that fight, Ali publicly declared his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and asked to be recognized by his Muslim name.
Later that year, the World Boxing Association — one of several sanctioning bodies for boxing — deprived Ali of his heavyweight crown after a contract dispute regarding a rematch with Liston. Mr. Terrell claimed the vacant WBA title on March 5, 1965, by winning a unanimous decision over Eddie Machen.
Mr. Terrell went on to defeat two top contenders, George Chuvalo and Doug Jones, running his record to 39-4.
Nevertheless, most observers considered Ali the true heavyweight champion. Ali went through one opponent after another, delivering a particularly harsh beating to former champion Floyd Patterson in November 1965 after Patterson refused to use Ali’s Muslim name.
Ali and Mr. Terrell agreed to unify the title at the Houston Astrodome on Feb. 6, 1967. The fight came at a time when Ali was under fire from political figures and others for his refusal to be inducted into the Army.
Mr. Terrell had known Ali since they were amateur boxers in the 1950s, and they had once sparred together. Whether out of habit or provocation, Mr. Terrell repeatedly called his opponent “Clay” before their fight. (Most newspapers and magazines at the time also referred to Ali by his earlier name.)
The sensitive issue erupted during a tense pre-fight television interview conducted by broadcaster Howard Cosell.
“My name is Muhammad Ali, and you will announce it right there in the center of that ring after the fight, if you don’t do it now,” Ali told Mr. Terrell as Cosell stood between them.
“You are acting just like another old Uncle Tom, another Floyd Patterson,” Ali continued. “I’m going to punish you.”
With the cameras rolling, the two fighters began to remove their jackets and cock their fists before bystanders stepped between them.
“I wasn’t trying to insult him,” Mr. Terrell said in Thomas Hauser’s book, “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” (1991). “He’d been Cassius Clay all the time before when I knew him.”
Mr. Terrell thought Ali’s outrage was staged, part of a publicity stunt to promote the fight. But once the bell rang in Houston, it was clear that Ali was not joking. Over and over, he shouted, “What’s my name?” before delivering one damaging blow after another.
In the third round, Mr. Terrell sustained an injury to his left eye that left him with double vision. He stayed on his feet throughout the 15-round fight, but he was crouched over, with his hands covering his face, unable to take advantage of his long reach and 6-foot-6-inch height.
“From the eighth round on, Terrell was virtually helpless,” Hauser wrote in his book. “And from that point on, Ali taunted him mercilessly. Time and again, he shouted, ‘What’s my name,’ and followed with a burst of blows to Terrell’s eyes. ‘Uncle Tom! What’s my name! Uncle Tom! What’s my name!’ ”
Blood oozed down Mr. Terrell’s face, and both eyes were swollen almost shut. Many spectators among the crowd of more than 37,000 called for the fight to be stopped, but the referee, Harry Kessler, did not intervene.
After the bout, which Ali won by unanimous decision, Sports Illustrated writer Tex Maule described it as “a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty.”
Mr. Terrell maintained that Ali illegally gouged his eye early in the fight, causing a blood vessel to burst. Afterward, Mr. Terrell underwent surgery to repair a broken bone under his left eye.
“I’m not apologizing for whipping him,” Ali said at the time. “I’m out to be cruel, that’s what the boxing game is about.”
Within months, Mr. Terrell had recovered enough to resume his career, but after losing two fights in succession he temporarily retired.
Ali had one more fight in 1967, a knockout victory over Zora Folley, before he was convicted of draft evasion, and his championship was taken away. He was 25 and at the peak of his abilities, but the undisputed heavyweight champion would not be allowed to box again for more than three years.
Ernest Terrell was born April 4, 1939, near Belzoni, Miss. He was one of 10 children in a sharecropping family that later moved to Chicago.
Mr. Terrell began boxing in his early teens, working as a hotel elevator operator to help pay his gym fees. He was a two-time Golden Gloves amateur champion in Chicago before beginning his professional career in 1957.
He also had a strong interest in music and taught himself to play guitar. He started a band, Ernie Terrell and the Heavyweights, that appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” in the 1960s. His sister, Jean Terrell, was part of the group before replacing Diana Ross as lead singer with the Supremes in 1970.
Mr. Terrell returned to the boxing ring in 1970 and fought until 1973, retiring with a record of 46-9. He never had another shot at the heavyweight title.
He worked as a music producer and boxing promoter and, for years, ran a successful janitorial business in Chicago, with hundreds of employees. He twice ran unsuccessfully for alderman in Chicago’s municipal government.
Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Maxine Sibley Terrell of Chicago; two stepchildren; three sisters; and four brothers.
Mr. Terrell was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004. He did not apologize for the dispute that led to the rancor underlying his 1967 fight with Ali.
“We were fighting,” he told USA Today in 2009. “What was I supposed to do, give him Christmas gifts?”
Over time, however, the fighters reconciled and became friendly. In later years, Mr. Terrell always referred to his former opponent as “Ali.”