Deep Waters: When Thad Went Thud

By Mike Casey on August 5, 2015
Deep Waters: When Thad Went Thud
How good could Thad Spencer have been if he had stayed on the straight and narrow?

Jerry Quarry was a 7 to 5 underdog when he squared off with Thad Spencer on February 3, 1968 in Oakland…

In the spring of 1966, everything was going right for heavyweight contender Thad Spencer. Thad was on the upswing and he was improving with each fight. The Portland Oregon stylist was easy on the eye and some even said that he bore more than a passing resemblance to Joe Louis in his fighting style.

Having transferred his base of operations from Portland to San Francisco, Spencer had dispensed with the services of manager Walter Minskoff and was now being handled by Willie Ketchum. No contract had been signed between Thad and Willie, making Spencer a free agent. The switch seemed to relax Thad after his wrangling with Minskoff. Now Spencer could concentrate on fulfilling his undoubted potential. He was the California heavyweight champion, fresh from defending his state crown after outpointing Chuck Leslie in a terrific fight at the Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco.

It was a sweet win for Thad, his 26th triumph in 30 fights and revenge for a split decision loss to Leslie back in 1963. The victory followed a disappointing point loss to another great prospect of the time, Amos (Big Train) Lincoln. It seemed that Spencer just couldn’t beat the Big Train, having been TKO’d by Lincoln in their first fight a year earlier.

Willie Ketchum, like every great manager, insisted that the second loss wasn’t all it seemed. Thad, said Willie, had been suffering from a cold for almost a week prior to the fight. “Now that his mind’s at ease,” explained Ketchum, “you’ll see a much better fighter from now on. The kid’s got natural ability.”

Willie was certainly right about that. At 5’ 11’’, with a powerful and well proportioned physique, Spencer looked the part and was a classy boxer. He had a good jab, a decent left hook and learned well from his setbacks. Steadily he began to move up the rankings and soon joined the elite Top 10 of the Ring magazine.

He followed the Chuck Leslie win with a decision over tough Billy Daniels and then flew to the UK to care of Jack Bodell and Brian London. The fragile Bodell was all done by the end of the second round, whilst London was well outpointed at the King’s Hall in Manchester.

Returning home, Thad suffered an unlucky defeat when losing his California title to Bill McMurray on a cut eye in the seventh round. Nearly eight years later, McMurray would more famously cut George Foreman’s eye in training and force the postponement of Foreman’s title defense against Muhammad Ali.

Spencer wasn’t discouraged. He bounced back a month later to decision Doug Jones and then finally lifted the curse of Amos Lincoln by stopping the Big Train in the eighth round at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.


Those two victories catapulted Thad into an exciting new world. Tired of waiting for the inactive Muhammad Ali to resolve his differences with the Army, the WBA organized an eight-man elimination tournament to find a successor as heavyweight champion. Joining Thad were Ernie Terrell, Jimmy Ellis, Leotis Martin, Karl Mildenberger, Oscar Bonavena, Jerry Quarry and Floyd Patterson.

Spencer got off to a flyer with a unanimous 15-rounds win over the long-time leading contender, Ernie Terrell, knocking big Ernie down in the second round. Jerry Quarry, by contrast, only squeaked past former champ Floyd Patterson on a controversial decision. Quarry would be Spencer’s next assignment.

In the minds of many, it was Spencer who was the coming man and former champ Joe Louis stated that he favored Thad to come out on top in the competition. But Thad lost his discipline. He partied after the Terrell victory and never really stopped partying thereafter. Smoking cocaine and living the high life in general became his preferences. Training, by contrast became a no-no.

Jerry Quarry was a 7 to 5 underdog when he squared off with Spencer on February 3, 1968 in Oakland. Thad was the heavier man by seven and a half pounds at 200½, but Quarry was a revelation as he systematically tore the Oregon man apart. The cheers and roars from the crowd of 12,110 thundered around the Oakland Arena as Jerry took control and set up an epic finish.

He floored Spencer in the fourth round with a looping left hook to the chin and again in the tenth with a short, chopping right to the jaw. In each case, there were only seconds remaining in the round as the crowd went wild. Referee Jack Downey, distracted by the cacophony of sound, continued counting to the mandatory eight on both occasions.

Quarry cut the coup de grace just as fine. There were just three seconds left in the 12th and final round when he jumped on Thad like a tiger. Jerry lashed Spencer with a tremendous barrage of punches, but the significant blow was a big right to the head that set Thad wobbling and scattered him into no man’s land. Spencer tried to clutch and survive but he couldn’t shunt himself out of the line of fire as Quarry rifled lefts and rights to the head to force referee Downey’s stoppage.

“I just took Jerry for granted,” Spencer said. “I got real popular. I was living it up and Jerry was training every day.” It sounded like a sporting admission, but the resentful Spencer would also say that he was a far better fighter than Quarry (presumably when sober) and that handler Willie Ketchum had shoved a greasy substance up Thad’s nose during the fight. “It took everything out of me,” Spencer claimed. “Without gloves, without shoes, I could beat Quarry.”

It was the familiar cry of bitter men who need others to blame for their self destruction.


Spencer had taken a bad beating and was never the same fighter again. His subsequent slide was sad and prolonged, as he failed to win any of his eight fights over the remaining three years of his career, losing seven and drawing one.

His next fight against Leotis Martin at the Royal Albert Hall in London, just three months later, was a step too far too soon, even though Spencer fought heroically. He and Martin waged a terrific war that is still remembered by British fans as one of the greatest fights ever seen in the UK. Martin finally prevailed in the see-saw thriller, stopping Thad in the ninth round. It was the end of the road for Spencer and his remaining seven fights were a disturbing reminder of how obsession and self-abuse can drive a man into deep and dangerous waters. “My life turned into one big party,” he recalled. He remained in the UK for two weeks after the Martin defeat, “living it up” in his own words.

Six months after the beating by Martin, Thad returned to the UK to be stopped in the sixth round by the exciting but always limited “Blond Bomber” Billy Walker.

Could it get worse? Yes it could and it did. Big hitting Mac Foster, the latest sensation, bombed out Spencer in one round in Fresno. Taking a 10-month layoff, Thad came back to briefly stop the rot by drawing with Charlie Reno, but it was small potatoes compared to the glories of the recent past. A subsequent points loss to Tony Doyle was followed by a second round knockout defeat to Venezuelan puncher, Jose Luis Garcia. Then it was Ron Stander’s turn to add Spencer’s scalp to his record.

On June 7, 1971, at the Memorial Coliseum in Dallas, Spencer was rematched with Tony Doyle and lost again. That elusive win that Thad craved had fluttered away like an elusive butterfly. Finally, mercifully, Spencer realized the truth and hung up his gloves.

How good could Spencer have been if he had stayed on the straight and narrow? Well, that’s always an impossible question. But for what it’s worth, I think he would have been exactly what he was during his fleeting prime: a decent contender. Not a world champion.

Many believed back in 1967/68 that Spencer would have beaten Joe Frazier. Oh no he wouldn’t!

Thad Spencer died on December 13, 2013, at the age of 70.

Mike Casey is a writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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Thad Spencer W 12 Ernie Terrell

Jerry Quarry v.s Thad Spencer

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  1. Bob 04:44am, 08/08/2015

    I don’t usually like boxing nicknames, thinking they are silly, immature and unnecessary. Big Train, however, is one of my favorites. Great sound to it.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:37pm, 08/07/2015

    Mike Casey-I love your work and is all the better for your great contributions….I’m just a blow hard having a little fun.

  3. Big Wally 08:49am, 08/07/2015

    Always liked Quarry, Great fighter and hard man

  4. KB 07:23am, 08/07/2015

    Jerry’s shoulders look very broad and imposing. He was at peak condition when he chilled Thad. This is a great photo

  5. Mike Casey 07:15am, 08/07/2015

    Frankie, you could start an argument in an empty barn. This is just a straightforward profile of Thad Spencer. Did I suggest or even hint that Thad or Quarry could beat Wlad?

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:44am, 08/07/2015

    Clearly as shown in the photo above Jerry was a cruiserweight if ever there was. In this fight he was at his peak physically and mentally….think about this for a Goddamned minute….he was 6 ft. tall and around 190 lbs for the bout with Spencer and Wlad fights at 6’6” and 245 solid muscle….what’s sorely needed on this site is a teeny tiny bit of common sense when comparing fighters from different eras….the fight with Thad occurred almost fifty years, yet we go back to the Twenties to dig up fighters who could whip Roberto Duran’s ass to a frazzle…..really?

  7. oldschool 03:08pm, 08/06/2015

    Terrific article about another long and forgotten fighter. I remember The Ring touting him as the next big thing. I think he may have gone a little farther if he hadn’t been rushed early in his career.

  8. nicolas 10:59am, 08/06/2015

    Kind of surprised that people thought that he might be the next heavyweight champ. Yes he beat Terrell, but perhaps the beating by Ali took a lot out of Terrell. of his 34 wins, his last being against Terrell, he only had 16 knockouts. Not a great resume for a next heavyweight champ. While Lyle and Shavers fought on to greater fame in later fights, the same cannot be said for Spencer, Mathis, or Foster. Interesting interview that he had some 10 years ago that I found on the internet.

  9. KB 09:35am, 08/06/2015

    As Thad, Mac, and Ernie found out, Jerry was a monster closer. Once he had his prey stunned. he would exact the kill forthwith.

  10. Mike Casey 07:33am, 08/06/2015

    Thanks pal!

  11. KB 06:19am, 08/06/2015

    great about one of my all-time favorites during a period when there were many to like.

    Yes, welcome back to Mike

  12. Mike Casey 03:42am, 08/06/2015

    Lincoln was an odd case, Clarence. He went downhill as fast as Spencer did, so perhaps he was taking the wrong stuff too. You’re right about Liston - Amos really did get a walloping from Sonny.

    Bob: Thanks for your kind comment.

  13. Clarence George 03:07am, 08/06/2015

    Amos Lincoln?!  Only in a Mike Casey article would the dead and buried name of “Big Train” be resurrected.  One of Sonny Liston’s hapless opponents, Lincoln fought the wonderfully named Big Bill Little.  Best of all, he fought a guy with too little sense to change his name from Wally Cox.  A safe assumption—very safe indeed—that it wasn’t *the* Wally Cox.

    Very interesting and informative piece on Thad Spencer, of whom I knew this side of bupkis.  Especially like the line, “scattered him into no man’s land.”

  14. Bob 11:44pm, 08/05/2015

    Nice work, Mike. I’ve always found Spencer to be an interesting subject. He is a bit of a mystery man, although a book came out about him a few years ago. The Quarry fight was a big fight for both men. Very enjoyable and nostalgic story. Glad you are back.

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