By Anthony Cocks
When 18-year-old Jake Ellis took a break from his VCE studies to indulge in a little daydreaming he couldn’t have imagined where it would lead him at the time.
Sitting in his cousin Brock’s bedroom the pair floated different career options they were interested in pursuing. No matter what they discussed, their thoughts kept turning back to boxing.
Jake wanted to be a boxing promoter. It was the promoters who afforded the boxers the opportunities to progress their careers. It was the promoters who got the respect.
Besides, it was in the family blood.
“I was supposed to be studying for an English exam and that’s basically how it first started coming up,” said Ellis, 26, who is the son former IBF junior lightweight champion Lester Ellis. “From there I just ran it past my parents. They did not like the idea at all, especially my old man.”
The Ellis name is synonymous with the fight game in Australia. Lester Ellis was a boxing prodigy, good enough to win a world championship at the tender age of 19. Trained by his father Keith Ellis Sr and older brother Keith Jr – who, by his own count, trained more Australian champions than any other coach – Lester would become just the fifth Australian to win a world boxing championship when he ripped the title from defending champion Hwan Kil Yuh of South Korea in Melbourne in February 2015. Jake’s cousin Heath ‘The Heat’ Ellis enjoyed a successful career as a pro in the mid-to-late 2000s, winning numerous regional laurels while compiling a respectable record of 15-3-1 (7) under the tutorage of his father Neil Ellis.
With that type of pedigree, it seemed inevitable Jake would be drawn to the fight game.
“My dad told me the story of promoters are basically millionaires coming in to the sport who end up losing a lot of money,” said Ellis, who was a year younger than his famous father when he won the world championship when he promoted his first show.
“He said I’ve actually never heard of any broke kid – or any kid for that matter – starting in promotions and building a career from scratch that turned out to be anything, so my dad was quite against it.
“He didn’t really like me fighting, my old man, but he actually even said he’d prefer me fighting to promoting. So he was really, really worried, you know.”
Despite his parents’ warnings Ellis was determined to push ahead. He held his first promotion with Brock under the Ellis Boxing Enterprises brand at the salubrious Sunshine Roller Skating Centre on 18 March 2011, a nondescript venue in Melbourne’s inner west with a crowd capacity of around 500 people, just four months after finishing his final VCE exam.
“My parents could probably tell when I first started that I was very naïve. My projections on my first show were very high. Like $100,000 in the wrong direction. So a lot of my shit that I was talking probably didn’t inject any type of security into it either, being very naïve with no business experience,” Ellis laughed.
“Although I always have a bit of business savvy, a bit of a business brain, I’d never been to uni or operated a business, so it was a risky proposition.”
Ellis admits his lack of experience was something of a liability early on in his promotional career but says that his raw ambition carried him through.
“My naivety was both my greatest blessing and curse,” Ellis said, “not fully understanding as an 18-year-old kid what I was being told about the potential pitfalls of promoting. In one way if I knew how hard it would be, I probably wouldn’t have started!
“But at the same time I understood what the game comes with. My dad explained that to me very, very well beforehand, so there’s no real complaints on that end. I knew what I was getting myself into.”
As a greenhorn promoter finding his feet Ellis was met with push back from some of the more established figures in the boxing industry who saw the upstart kid as someone who could negatively impact their own interests in the sport.
But Ellis acknowledges that some of these problems were of his own making.
“You don’t really get as an 18-year-old how these things work,” he said. “As a kid if something happens to you, you go to your teacher or you go to your mum, so I probably didn’t really understand about these problems but I learned on the job.
“And because I didn’t have that business experience or business education, whatever you want to call it, I did learn on the job. And that costs you. It costs you time, money and resources.”
In the eight years since that first show Ellis has gone from doing everything himself – from putting up posters on telegraph poles to flogging tickets and securing sponsorship’s from local businesses – to building a loyal team of soldiers who take care of much of the day-to-day running of the promotional outfit.
One of these soldiers is his cousin Tai Tuiniua, matchmaker for Team Ellis Promotions.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what I was going to do in boxing at the time,” said Tuiniua. “I was great mates with the Ellis boys, I loved hanging out with them and I just tried to make myself as useful as I could possibly be to help them out. That’s really where it all stemmed from.
“We had a main event fall through between Mike Esgandari and Anthony Buttigieg for the state title just a few weeks out from the fight. I offered to help and Jake just started to put in time with me, teaching me about things like how styles make fights, where different boxers are at different stages of their careers, things like that. It happened incrementally at first, but before long I was matching all his shows.
“Jake’s faith in me from the start has been unwavering and I can’t thank him enough for that. He has given me my chance in this sport and provided the opportunity to build my name in the industry. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. I honestly couldn’t say better things about Jakey. He’s really one of the good guys in the industry.”
Ellis, who is perhaps the only person in Australia to hold a licence as a boxer, matchmaker and promoter, credits those in his close personal orbit as having the biggest impact on his career. Central to his personal and professional development was fight manager and promoter Mike Altamura, a long-time family friend, who took Ellis under his wing and provided the burgeoning promoter with guidance and a sounding board to bounce ideas off.
Much like Ellis, Altamura was exposed to the fight game throughout his life and began managing boxers while still a teenager.
“We knew each other as kids, but as you know the age gap between me and Mike – when I was six or seven he was like sixteen – so it’s not like we were best mates when we first met,” Ellis explained.
“Years down the track Mike was hanging around my cousin Brock and he basically took him under his wing a little bit. So we started yarning and mate, we hit it off straight away.
“There probably isn’t a person I can thank more than Mike as far as keeping me in the game. A lot of people think it’s my dad who is behind everything I do. They don’t even realise he didn’t want me to do it. He doesn’t even come to boxing anymore. He hasn’t been to a boxing show in 20-years outside of our own ones. People don’t really get that.
“The truth of the matter is Mike was probably more the reason why I’m still promoting today more than anyone.”
Altamura, who regards Ellis as both a protégé and a peer, says that he saw a lot of the same drive and ambition in Jake that helped him forge his own career in the industry as a teenage boxing manager.
“What I saw in Jake was a refreshing optimism towards the fight game and the hunger to learn,” Altamura said. “Those traits were strikingly similar. But Jake at say 18, was much sharper and cleverer than I was at a comparable age. Way more business savvy. He was a diamond in the rough, so it was just a matter of tweaking some areas, teaching him the art of communication and the rest is history. I think he has the potential to have a Hall of Fame type of career. No pressure or anything!"
After outgrowing the Sunshine Roller Skating Centre’s limited capacity Team Ellis venue-hopped for a number of years, progressively outgrowing each new venue’s crowd capacity after a show or two. In 2016 Ellis struck a deal with rival promoter and venue owner Brian Amatruda to utilise his Melbourne Pavilion – Australia’s ‘Home of Boxing’ – for Team Ellis shows.
The partnership has been mutually beneficial for both parties.
“Naturally I didn’t have a whole lot of fans early on but by the time I moved to the Melbourne Pavilion I had been promoting for five years,” said Ellis, who also logged two wins by knockout in a brief pro fighting career in his early-20s. “By that stage it had gotten out that I was pretty much a good person, I was a good payer, I knew what I was talking about and I always matched fights as close to 50-50 as possible.
“A lot of my core values and the company values basically projected themselves. I’m not that well-spoken, I’ve never really put myself out there, I pretty much let people come to me. I put up a good product, do my best every time out and hoped everything would eventually click. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Now with more than two dozen shows under his belt, Ellis’s foothold in domestic market is secure. He says he has access to more than 90% of boxers from his home state of Victoria.
“At the start I was signing up fighter after fighter to the point that I now have the vast majority of Victorian fighters are basically under my stable,” said Ellis, who holds the record for the largest ever crowd attendance at the Melbourne Pavilion.
The Team Ellis empire continues to grow and now includes a state-of-the-art 600-sqm gym in Keilor East that was opened in 2017. The Team Ellis Gym serves as training headquarters for many of the fighters that appear on their cards while doubling as the command centre for the promotional team that consists of five full time employees.
Boxing continues to be a family affair for Jake, who believes in giving back to the people who helped him get to where he is today. One of the highlights of his career came just a few months ago when he was able to employ one of his childhood heroes.
“I looked up to my cousin Heath because he was a few years older than me. At 16 he was knocking out grown men. He was my hero as a kid,” said Ellis.
“Heath had a good career. He fought 80-odd amateur fights, 20 pro fights and won eight regional titles, but unfortunately didn’t win a world championship or find a way to make the sport financially viable so he went and became a teacher.
“He spent 12 years teaching, which he ended up hating. The disrespectful kids and everything else that went with it. Now this got me thinking. So I offered Heath a job and for the last few weeks he’s been working for me in the gym full time; he no longer has to be a teacher, he hasn’t lost a dollar and hasn’t lost a beat in his step.
“So to be able to employ one of my childhood heroes who I grew up idolising is incredibly rewarding. To make people like my parents, my wider family and Mike Altamura proud of me, that’s what it’s all about.”