It’s October 14, 1995, and the World Boxing Association is holding its Hall of Fame ceremonies in a Los Angeles hotel. The newest inductee, nattily attired in a tuxedo, wraps his gnarled right hand around a pen and struggles to sign his name. James, his older brother, prompts him. “Draw a Q,” he says. “A circle with a little line, a tail, through it.” Fans lined up for the boxer’s autograph look on, slack-jawed. The surprise in their eyes reflects the warrior’s steep decline. Many put away their paper and pen, simply shake Jerry’s hand and discreetly move on.
In his prime, Jerry Quarry could knock off the New York Times crossword puzzle and opponents in the ring with equal speed. He had a capacious vocabulary and a photographic memory, and possessed a rare mathematical acumen. According to his mother, Arwanda, he could glance at a financial sheet and instantly spot an error.
By 1995, all that was gone. Quarry’s mind, once a wide and clear thoroughfare, had careened into a narrow cul-de-sac. The medical name is dementia pugilistica, and it is endemic among boxers whose careers have drummed them into a brain-addled fog. Jerry’s symptoms aped the last throes of Alzheimer’s: increased irritability, chronic confusion, moods that lurched from a bland, fatuous cheerfulness to depression and then back again. Outgoing and gregarious by nature, he was now wary of strangers. Peter Russell, a neuropsychologist who treated Quarry, likened what was happening to the former boxer’s brain to “a cube of sugar dissolving in a cup of coffee.” At age fifty, Quarry would proudly thump his hard belly, but the attic had collapsed. He had the brain of an eighty-year-old.
Fighters spend years sculpting themselves into statues of heightened virility. But each punch they take, every round and sparring session, chips them slightly. Their capacity to absorb punishment—their very ability to gut it out—fells them in the end. “Boxing,” Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, “consumes the very excellence it displays.”
Quarry wasn’t alone in his debility that evening in 1995. The shuffling gaits of other ex-boxers—Armando Mu
ñiz, Mando Ramos and Bobby Chacon—and the blurred edges of their speech revealed that they, too, had sacrificed the best part of themselves to the sport they loved. But this is an especially grim tale of one man whose inability to leave the ring proved his undoing. Indeed, you might say Jerry Quarry was simply too tough for his own good. In the storied history of Irish heavyweights who punched their way into the fistic firmament—men like John L. Sullivan, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and James Braddock—Quarry would be the last to carry the torch.
Quarry, a perennial fan favourite, was born in Bakersfield, California, in 1945 and plied his bruising trade during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the halcyon era of the heavyweights. The aspirants who crossed his path, boxers whose title hopes were dashed and whose minds were anaesthetized by his fists, would concede he was a force to be reckoned with. He trounced the likes of Floyd Patterson, Buster Mathis, Thad Spencer, Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers. He was a bona fide contender.
Jerry’s father, Jack, was the greatest influence on the career choices of Jerry and his three brothers; all of their lives revolved around boxing to greater and lesser degrees. The elder Quarry, a hard-bitten, splenetic character cut from The Grapes of Wrath, left home at fourteen to escape the Depression, his father’s abuse and the dreary dust-bowl plains of Oklahoma. As David Davis wrote in the October 1995 edition of Boxing Illustrated, “He hopped freight trains west, learning to survive among the hobos and bums with his wits and fists, mostly the latter.” He had the words “H-A-R-D L-U-C-K” tattooed across his two fists. From an early age, Jack was hell-bent for light-heavyweight glory, but an acute case of psoriasis thwarted his ambition. He lived his prizefighter dreams through his boys instead, pining openly to the family—which included four daughters—for the day one of his sons would become a world champion. The Quarrys grew up tough in the farm-labour camps of California. If all of Jack’s boys—James, Jerry, Mike and Robert—tried boxing, it was because they were convinced it was the only way their father would deem them worthy.
The old man’s methods were brutally simple: plant two children in a ring and see who survives. The eldest, James, was routinely pitted against second-born Jerry, with predictable age-based results.When Mike became old enough, Jerry would beat on him in turn. Thus was toughness forged in Jack Quarry’s world.
Jack insisted on a set of injunctions that bound the Quarry clan: never lie, never cheat, never steal. The crowning virtue, however, was “never quit.” When James was eight, he ducked a fight in a camp softball game. He described the incident in a feature article that appeared in the February 1996 edition of People magazine:
The umpire called me out on strikes. I disagreed. He hit me and I wouldn’t hit him back. My dad saw that. He called me into the bungalow. I was told to get my sister’s bottle and one of her baby diapers. He made me take off my clothes in front of the whole family and pinned the diaper on me. Then I was told to start sucking the bottle. I was humiliated.
The incident had a profound effect on his younger brother Jerry. “I will never let that happen to me,” James recalls him saying, in a voice that belied his tender age.
James walked away from boxing at fifteen, repulsed by his father’s ways—though not by boxing itself. He never stopped loving the hard art and was in his brother’s corner for Jerry’s 1970 fight against Mac Foster. James remembered that night in a 2000 interview with the boxing journal Wail!:
I was driving a truck and had been in Montreal, Canada. We deadheaded to New York to see if we could just get there to see the fight. It turned out… I was the water person and made sure his mouthpiece was rinsed…Jerry had a lot of respect for Mac Foster. Anyone who can get to twenty-four wins with no losses with twenty-four knockouts deserves respect… I remember Jerry walking back to his corner after the bell rang; he had a puzzled look on his face. I asked, “What’s wrong?” He said, “I just can’t get to this guy.” This made me mad. I jumped all over Jerry. I said, “Jerry, remember what we talked about before the fight, about Foster being very mechanical?” Jerry said yes. I said, “If you don’t keep your fuckin’ hands up and start punching to the body, I’m going to kick your fuckin’ ass.” I screamed this in his ear as loud as I could. Jerry turned the fight around going into the fourth round. By the end of the fourth and especially the fifth, Jerry was landing that big left hook to the body along with some strong right-hand shots. Foster’s guard began to drop. He had never felt a body attack like that. The rest is history.
Jerry had fought 105 amateur bouts by the time he turned sixteen—an amazing fact considering that he suffered a number of crippling setbacks as a child and teenager. These included a broken arm, a broken back from a diving accident and acute inflammation of the kidney. The prognosis was bleak for the kidney condition, which was diagnosed as nephritis. Doctors declared the thirteen-year-old Jerry had a fifty-fifty chance of survival; even if he did survive, his days would likely be spent as a semi-invalid. Athletics in any form was out of the question. Jerry spent nine months in the hospital and eighteen months convalescing at home; the ever helpful Jack mocked and goaded him, calling him a “mama’s boy.”
Ironically, it was another life-threatening condition, a dangerously inflamed appendix, that restored Jerry’s health and saved his life. Several days after the doctors removed the offending organ, the nephritis symptoms completely disappeared and,to everyone’s astonishment, Jerry began touching his toes and doing knee bends. His medical recovery is typical of the Quarry pattern: time and again, Jerry and his brothers rose from life’s hard canvas, refused to say “uncle” and headed back for more. All of them took to heart the old man’s creed that “there is no quit in a Quarry.”
At nineteen, Jerry won the Western Regional Golden Gloves and went on to Kansas City for the Nationals. Battling a flu bug, he electrified the crowd by knocking out all five of his opponents in a total of eighteen minutes—a record that stands to this day. Two of his opponents even suffered broken jaws. His National Golden Gloves triumph bookended a stellar amateur record of 170 wins, 13 losses and 54 no-decisions. More important, however, was the approving nod he wrested from Jack.
The future looked rosy for Jerry that year: he was the first member of his family to complete high school, and he was graduating with straight A’s. Thought had been given to college and a white-collar career, but the power Jerry displayed in Kansas City decreed
a different direction. He decided to turn pro. He would ride that bristling left hook and granite chin to fame and riches.
Something else was also working in his favour: he was white.
In boxing,” writes Nick Tosches in his biography of the late Sonny Liston, “nothing is better for business than a fight between a black man and a white man.” Boxing’s racial cachet began nearly a century ago—on December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia—when a black American named Jack Johnson trounced the white Canadian Tommy Burns for the world heavyweight title. White fans may have grudgingly admired Johnson’s extraordinary skills, but they chafed at his boastfulness and contempt for social and racial order. Not only had he married a white woman, but he also bragged of bedding countless others. At the time, miscegenation was viewed with an almost eugenic horror, and Johnson’s antics set the groundwork for a head-on collision with the wider society.
That collision was his defeat of Tommy Burns, which triggered a very public hunt for a white fighter to beat Johnson (Jess Willard succeeded on April 5, 1915, in Havana, Cuba). The obsession with this Great White Hope has waxed and waned, but it has never entirely left the sport. Forty years on, during World War II, it was at a low point. The champion at that time was the great Joe Louis. Stolid, correct and unfailingly polite, Louis was Johnson’s polar opposite. The legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon once said of him, “He is a credit to his race—the human race.” America was also at war with Nazi Germany and, at least in theory, with the ideology of Aryan supremacy. But when Muhammad Ali refused the draft in 1967—famously saying, “No Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger’”—he became a lightning rod in America’s Kulturkampf and reignited the White Hope cause.
Jerry Quarry loathed the “White Hope” tag from the day the press pinned it on him. “I don’t fight for any race, creed or colour,” he never tired of saying, “I fight for myself.” Yet he partly carried that cause. “Such is humanity shorn of hypocrisy,” as Tosches writes.
Jerry’s roller-coaster professional career began with a steady ascent. In his first fight, he trounced Gene “the Marine” Hamilton in four rounds. Jerry went undefeated in his next nineteen bouts (three of them draws) until a wily veteran named Eddie Machen stalled his climb in a ten-round loss on points. Jerry had been boxing professionally for just over a year; great things were still to come.
Over the following twelve months, he rattled off six more wins, leading to an exciting matchup with former champion Floyd Patterson. In the second round, Jerry lashed out with a flurry of punches that struck his opponent like hammer raps on a nail. Down Patterson went. After the bout, Jerry recounted how—in that singular moment when he stood over his boyhood idol—he froze just long enough to allow Patterson enough time to clear his head and claw his way back into the bout. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Do you know who that is down there?’” Quarry knocked Patterson down again in the fourth, and after six more rounds the bout was declared a draw.
The young Irish-American’s performance earned him an entry into the World Boxing Association’s heavyweight elimination tournament, organized to find a successor to the defrocked Ali, who had been stripped of his crown for refusing the military draft. Quarry was making waves: crowds loved him, and he loved them. In the tournament’s first round, he fought a rematch with Patterson, and this time triumphed in twelve. He was then pitted against the tournament
favourite, Thad Spencer.
There is beauty, a raw and terrible beauty, in boxing—in the rhythmic cadence of rolling shoulders and the blinding thrust and parry of punches. One skill, however, raises the sport to a form of art: the counterpunch. Just as an opponent is preparing to punch, the counterpuncher leaps in, abandoning his own defence and the fight’s rhythm—going against its very grain—to strike at his opponent’s unprotected chin or brow. Counterpunching demands exquisite timing, deft co-ordination and rapierlike quickness. The fighter waits for that eye-blink moment of exposure when his opponent is about to attack, and then strikes. In a magisterial counterpunching display, Quarry dissected Spencer, flooring him twice. In the twelfth and final round, as a defenceless Spencer was being battered along the ropes, the referee stopped the bout.
Jerry Quarry, October 1995. Canadian Press/ Eric Draper.
Jerry’s victory over Spencer was cause for celebration. Only one fighter, Jimmy Ellis, now stood between him and his elusive dream of the heavyweight crown, then the most coveted prize in professional sports. Family and friends gathered at the Neutral Corner, the family bar in Norwalk, California, to celebrate Jerry’s success.
At some point deep in the blur of that liquor-laced night, Jerry and his brother James got into a dust-up. James, it should be noted, is the only person to floor Jerry Quarry with a total knockout: “Some people will say that George Chuvalo actually did the trick,” recalled James in a 2001 interview with East Side Boxing, “but that fight had a controversial ending and Jerry had all of his senses. I, on the other hand, as an amateur fighter, knocked him out for the count and there was no doubt about it! I don’t always mention that he was only thirteen at the time.”
Whatever happened that evening in the Neutral Corner, it ended with Jerry being tackled into the corner of a jukebox machine. He complained afterward to his father, then his co-manager, about an ongoing pain in his back, but Jack, fearing that a postponement of the Ellis bout would scuttle the family’s chances at their best payday yet—$125,000 US—had Jerry shot up with cortisone and sent him into the ring.
One can’t help thinking of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, speaking to his mobster older brother about betrayal and the title shot that should have been. As Jerry ruefully put it years later, Jack fed his son “to the wolves.” Jerry’s ailing spine nullified his counterpunching skills and the edge he held in strength. His movements were wooden and tentative, and Ellis won a dull fifteen-round affair. Jerry’s condition—a fracture of the fourth lumbar vertebra—wasn’t diagnosed until after the bout. He had fought for the heavyweight championship with a broken back.
Hard luck. But there is no quit in a Quarry. The irony of Jerry’s lost title bout was that he spent the next half-dozen years battling champions and future legends in some of the most brutal fights and best rounds of boxing the sport has ever seen. Fans now loved or hated him—there was no middle ground with Quarry. Displaying the same grit he had shown as a kid, Jerry rifled off four victories over middling opposition, then pitched a near shutout against the highly regarded Buster Mathis in March 1969.
A fighter’s most revered quality is his “heart,” and Jerry never lacked for this. Mettle is tested, and proven, by an obdurate willingness to “suck it up” and keep on fighting, whatever the toll. Yet to Jerry’s dismay, boxing scribes had begun to doubt his courage. His recent victories had earned him another shot at glory—this time against the great Joe Frazier for the New York heavyweight title—but the Ellis fight had redefined his reputation. Now, it was haunting him.
In June 1969, Sports Illustrated’s Mark Kram wrote that Quarry had resolved to “stuff his valor down the throats of all those who said he had none.” But playing Frazier’s primitive game, standing mano-a-mano in a war of attrition, was rank insanity—like trying to dull the whirring blades of a two-hundred-pound threshing machine by diving headlong into it. Quarry, however, was obsessed.
At the opening bell, both men rushed to the centre of the ring and began trading heavy blows. Quarry, the quicker of the two, bulled Frazier into the ropes and jarred him repeatedly. Madison Square Garden crackled with the relentless thud of leather against flesh. Like two colliding rams, the combatants stepped back—as if to admire the damage they had wrought—then rushed forward again. In the second round, Frazier, a notoriously slow starter, began to find his groove. The brutal pace couldn’t last. Near the end of the third round, Quarry—cut, his right eye swelling shut—began ceding ground to his stronger foe. After seven murderous rounds, the ringside physician examined Quarry and signaled to the referee to call a halt. The headstrong Irish gambit had failed. Quarry bolted from his stool and stomped blindly about the ring. Suddenly he stopped and raised his ruined face heavenward, as if to beseech the gods to erase the path of recklessness he had taken.
Seven more bouts and six wins later, Quarry was back—positioned once again for a title shot, right where he had been before Frazier gave him a beating. Like a man running up a downward escalator, all Jerry’s energy was focused on staying within reach of that end: getting off at the top, getting that chance. In October 1970, he got what he wanted. After a three-and-a-half-year ban, American authorities finally green-lighted the resumption of Muhammad Ali’s career with a fight in Atlanta. Quarry was selected as the foil for the ex-champion’s return to boxing. Ali’s return to pre-eminence was hardly a sure thing. If Jerry won or acquitted himself well, he could expect great rewards. This was his big chance.
At the time, America was a country riven with cultural and racial tension, and the bout—between a black Muslim and a White Hope—stoked that hatred. Both men received death threats in the weeks leading up to the fight. The reaction to Quarry’s entrance into the ring was muted, punctuated by the odd jeer and catcall; Ali strode through the preponderantly black crowd to a swelling chorus of cheers. The fight didn’t last long. In the third round, just as Quarry was finding the range with a body attack, Ali uncorked a right hand that ripped a wide, deep tear over Quarry’s left eye. Between rounds, Jerry’s corner men tried in vain to stem the blood tide. The bout was halted.
Two years and six wins later, in Nevada, Jerry fared no better in his rematch with Ali. His younger brother Mike—who, at twenty-one, was showing great promise—was battling light-heavyweight champion Bob Foster on the undercard of Jerry’s bout with Ali. As Jerry limbered up in his dressing room, the seconds ebbed away in the fourth round of his brother’s fight. He glanced at the television monitor just as Foster tagged Mike with a withering left hook that struck him flush on the chin. Mike fell back as if he had been shot. Many at ringside gasped. Only the sight of his heaving torso quelled the crowd’s worst fears. Racked with worry about his brother, Jerry went out and took a seven-round pasting from Ali.
Yet not everything was going badly: Ring magazine, the bible of boxing, voted him the most popular professional boxer in the world from 1969 to 1973; Boxing Illustrated had named him the same in 1968 and 1969, and in 1970 tied him for the honour with Ali. He had appeared on such shows as Batman and I Dream of Jeannie. He had sung on The Merv Griffin Show. In 1972, he was only twenty-seven, still comparatively young, and had earned considerable sums from his marquee bouts. Plus, he had that quitless Quarry gene. There was nowhere to go but up. He hired a new trainer and embarked on what seemed like a final climb up the ranks.
Six wins later—in which he made short work of Earnie Shavers and Liston-like slugger Ron Lyle—Quarry earned a return bout with Joe Frazier. But Frazier overwhelmed Quarry yet again, just as he had in that first fight—this time, according to Steve Wilstein of the Associated Press, “opening a gash so bad that the side of Quarry’s right eyeball glistened red like a hooked fish through his torn flesh.”
Quarry’s boxing career should have ended in 1974. Instead, it would be another eighteen years before his final bout. As Wilstein wrote in his 1995 profile of Quarry, “He wept. Retired. Changed his mind. Never listened to anyone. Started snorting cocaine and drinking.” While on vacation in Hawaii in March 1975, Jerry agreed to replace Oscar Bonavena in a fast-approaching bout with Ken Norton. He was reputedly drunk at the time and had only two weeks to train. Not surprisingly, when it came time to strap on the gloves, Norton parried whatever was thrown his way in the first three rounds, then proceeded to pummel Quarry mercilessly through the next two. When Jerry declared, “That’s it, gentlemen” in the fight’s post-mortem, it should have had the convincing ring of finality. It didn’t.
“It’s going to be another cut or another punch in the head,” Jack Quarry had told his son five years earlier, after the first bout with Ali. “You’ve got the money now. You’ve got some more money out in California. Go do something. Buy ya a service station or get ya an apartment house, anything. Just get out of it.” How ironic that Jack Quarry now stood helpless and pleading before his own pugilistic creations. Mike Quarry continued to box for another seven years after Foster’s mortician blow, and would later develop dementia pugilistica also. Youngest brother Robert would soon step into the professional ring with little training and a reputed drug habit, blithely assuming that the Quarry name would bring him riches. It didn’t. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice and his multiplying brooms in Fantasia, Jack’s splintering children couldn’t stop marching to the spell he had cast on them years ago.
The Quarry clan began to unravel. Jerry’s first marriage, to his highschool sweetheart, had e
nded in the early seventies, leaving children and considerable alimony. Two other marriages followed in quick succession.
He gained weight and drank heavily. The family glue dissolved even further when Jack and Arwanda divorced, and the old man stuck a gun in his mouth. (It misfired.) Thomas Gerbasi quotes Jerry in the September 1998 edition of Wail!: “That ring is my home. It’s
been my home most of my life. I know exactly what every inch of that ring means to me. It means my future as well as my past.” Despite the versatility of his talents and his easy, worldly erudition, Quarry’s identity remained roped entirely within boxing’s squared circle. “Boxing,” he often said, “is a one-on-one confrontation with your life.” It was his crucible, and each bout a new leap into the trial of solitary combat.
Why did Jerry keep fighting? Perhaps it has to do with the sublime, elevated feeling many boxers report envelops them after a bout. He could find nothing in our safe, sanitized world to compare with the joy of standing, bathed in triumph, over a fallen foe—the golden moment when the ego soars and knows no penumbra.
In 1983, Jerry underwent a series of neurological tests for a feature article in Sports Illustrated. The CAT scan revealed a cave in his septum, enlarged lateral ventricles and a suggestion of cortical atrophy. Dr. Ira Casson, a Long Island–based neurologist, told the magazine, “He did poorly on the test of visual motor perception. He did poorly on the test connecting the dots. We’re
not suggesting that Quarry is punch-drunk. What we are saying is that he has problems with certain cognitive functions—short-term memory and perceptual motor ability.”
“Unfortunately, none of us believed it,” Arwanda said. “Jerry was so normal.”
In retrospect, the final, painful “comebacks” of Jerry Quarry play out with the same feeling of inevitable disaster one experiences while watching a Rock Hudson or Doris Day social melodrama. The light-hiting, ever-cycling Lorenzo Zanon peppered Jerry for eight rounds before going down in the ninth. The fight with journeyman Lupe Guerra—cold-cocked in the first round—seems that brief moment of crazed sunshine before the Furies set in. The ensuing hard-fought decision over rising prospect James Williams proved a Pyrrhic victory for Quarry, and one of his bloodiest bouts ever. “He took sixty-some stitches in the face,” his son, Jerry Lynn, recounted. “It scared the shit out of me. It was so bad, the Red Cross set up camp outside his dressing room.”
His periods of inactivity between comebacks grew longer and longer, and he took other jobs in the meantime: pitchman for Miller Lite, bodyguard for the rock band Three Dog Night (a stint that led to his brief flirtation with cocaine). But the ring was his master.
In 1992, the forty-seven-year-old Jerry Quarry traveled to Colorado and suited up for the last time, taking on a pug by the name of Ron Cramner. Cramner battered him about for six rounds. Athletes may play games—even violent games like rugby and football—but no one plays at boxing. “Ain’t no such thing as ‘recreational boxing’” is the warning old trainers give novices. “You get in the ring, this is serious business; somebody’s up in there trying to tear your head off.” Jerry returned with two of his front teeth missing and a glazed look in his eyes—ever the hallmark of the damaged fighter. “When he came home from the fight in Colorado,” James said, “he couldn’t remember the night before.” For his fatal troubles, Quarry received $1,050 US.
In Wilstein’s retrospective, James Quarry explains the ache for the bright lights, the prizefighter’s curse:
He was missing the accolades… In making those comebacks, Jerry would walk around saying, “I’m going to be a hero again.” To this day, if we’re walking down the street or in the grocery store, he’ll go tap strangers on the shoulder and ask, “Do you follow boxing?” And if they say no, he’ll ask, “Have you ever heard of Jerry Quarry?” If they say no, he’ll say, “Well, I know you’ve heard of Muhammad Ali.” And they’ll say yes. And he’ll say, “Well, I fought him twice, and I’m Jerry Quarry.”
When Jerry’s condition became public knowledge, it spiked yet another round of punditry in the press on the sport’s shadowy past and its violence. The CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours ran a segment on him. “Do you remember what they used to call you?” the interviewerasked. “Nah.” “The Great White Hope.” “Ah, I remember that.”
His $2 million US in earnings was gone, eaten up by three divorce settlements, child-support payments, bad
investments and Uncle Sam. His only remaining income was a monthly cheque from Social Security for $614
US. Hard luck indeed.
Yet Jerry had few regrets. He had come a fair distance from hishardscrabble beginnings, from the time when his family lived in farm-labourcamps and picked cotton for pennies a day. “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride” is how Jerry summed up his career. Had it been worth it? “I’d do it all again,” he told Wilstein, “same way.”
I look at my past, great memories abound
For I fought, I bled and I cried
I gave it my all, round after round
And the world knows that I tried
In December 1998, complications from a bout of pneumonia led to cardiac arrest. In an obituary, sportswriter Wallace Matthews dubbed this “the supreme irony because if there was one thing of Jerry Quarry that never gave up, it was his heart.” With no hope of
recovery, his family requested that doctors remove him from life support. Jerry Quarry died January 3, 1999, at the age of fifty-three. Actor Mickey Rourke, old foes Joey Orbillo and Mac Foster, and friends and family attended the funeral. To the longing, mournful strains of “Danny Boy,” the casket that bore the body of the last great Irish heavyweight sank slowly into the earth. And hard men wept.