Jerry Quarry from Boxers Heaven
In boxing the primary objective is to destroy the other guy’s brain. So don’t shovel any crap about people paying big money to watch guys fight defensively…
I’m Jerry Quarry and I hope you’ve heard about me. I was the top ranked heavyweight contender and knew I’d soon be champion of the world. Boxing fans, women, television crews, and promoters with money all wanted me, and I loved my bright days of dreams and glory. But I don’t miss them anymore. They led to a long and undignified decline. Now I’m much better off in Shafter Memorial Park, a pretty place with lots of big trees about twenty miles northwest of Bakersfield. And it just got better here Saturday when they brought the ashes of my kid brother Mike, who’d been the top ranked light heavyweight contender in the world. We’re together again and will be forever, here by the railroad tracks and Central Valley Highway that run through this hot farming country our family left when we were kids.
We moved to Bellflower, a suburb southeast of Los Angeles, and in no time they were calling me the Bellflower Bomber. I’d been made for that. My tough dad Jack had HARD LUCK tattooed on his knuckles and threw all four brothers into the ring soon as possible and told us to keep swinging no matter what since “there’s no quit in a Quarry.” Jimmy was the oldest and the only man to really knock me down for the count. I was just thirteen and he was fourteen, and a year’s a lot when you’re a kid so that knockout didn’t mean much. Besides, Jimmy, unlike my other brothers, decided not to go for a pro career since I was soon pounding him so hard he knew he could never even be champ of our family.
I was definitely going to be champion of the world. I had more than two hundred amateur fights and of course fought thousands of training rounds in the gym. I didn’t think of it then, feeling invincible, but punches in those days also counted. Your brain doesn’t care how young you are; it only knows it’s bashing against a skull being hammered from outside. I thought I was the only one doing real damage. While still a teenager I won the National Golden Gloves title by knocking out five straight opponents. No one had done that and no one’s done it since.
Dad said I should turn pro and I did and beat up almost everyone and never lost except a close decision to veteran Eddie Machen and didn’t bother fighting him again because by age twenty-two I’d been selected for the tournament to decide who would replace Muhammad Ali as champ after he was banished in 1967 for refusing to join the army. In the first fight I decisioned former titlist Floyd Patterson and in the next I stopped contender Thad Spencer. Then I fought Jimmy Ellis for the heavyweight championship of the world. I knew damn well I won but the referee and one judge said Ellis did; the other referee called it a draw. That wouldn’t matter for long.
Within a year I’d knocked out three more boxers and decisioned two and earned a shot at part of the title against Joe Frazier. And the fight was in the greatest place of all—Madison Square Garden. I came right after Smokin’ Joe and nailed him with left hooks and right crosses to the head and also battered his body in round one and now I really knew I was best in the world and Frazier couldn’t take many more punches. I continued attacking but Frazier began hitting me with left hooks harder than anything I’d imagined, and I was groggy and cut and bleeding fast. They were going to do it. They were going to deny me again. They said the cut was too bad for me to continue. I protested like hell.
That’s really where it should have ended. I can say that now. Joe Frazier was better, and I feared, no matter what I said, that I was never going to win the world title. Six months later plodding but powerful George Chuvalo knocked me out. The hell he did. I didn’t hear the count. The referee didn’t count right. I could’ve gotten up before ten. I think I might have. It was close. It was another big loss. But there’s no quit in a Quarry. In June 1970 I was still only twenty-five and returning to Madison Square Garden. My opponent was a big heavyweight—they were all bigger since I only weighed about two hundred pounds—named Mac Foster who’d won all twenty-four fights by knockout. And I knocked his ass out. Again I knew I was the best anywhere and ready to prove it that October when Muhammad Ali made his comeback following more than three years in exile. I knew I could’ve beaten him. I was just cut again. He was lucky. But looking at the film now, as I should have then, I see Ali was much too big and fast for me. I should’ve been fighting as a cruiserweight but they didn’t have that division. There was only the light heavyweight division with a limit of one hundred seventy-five pounds or heavyweight and no limit.
I wasn’t worried. I beat six guys in less than two years and in 1972 got a rematch with Ali. This was a very special night: “The Quarry Brothers versus the Soul Brothers.” My little brother Mike, only twenty-one years old, had won his first thirty-six light heavyweight bouts and was fighting for the title against Bob Foster in the opener. I was more nervous for Mike than myself. Bob Foster was one of the hardest-hitting light heavies ever. Mike was a skillful boxer but not a knockout puncher. From the start Foster overpowered him, punching like a heavyweight. Mike was still game and trying to win in the fourth round when he stepped in and Foster uncorked the best left hook in a lifetime of great ones and nailed Mike on the chin, knocking him cold on his back. That scared hell out of me.
I was going to kill Ali. In our bout I charged and picked him up and guess I shouldn’t have put him down because when I did he was still far larger and quicker, and busted me up when he wasn’t toying with me. They stopped the fight in the seventh round. I wish Mike and I had both quit after that night. Maybe we’d be home instead of Shafter Memorial Park. But Mike and I were talented and handsome and Irish and everyone wanted to see us in the ring. That’s the only place we’d ever really been. I knew I should continue. Ask Ron Lyle. In 1973 he was undefeated and thought he was getting a title tune-up by taking me on in Madison Square Garden. He instead got a boxing lesson as I slipped most of his punches and punished him with counters and staggered him a few times, winning unanimously. A few months later, also in The Garden, I fought one of the most dreaded punchers in history, the man with the right-hand bomb, Earnie Shavers. He didn’t make it out of the first round.
Understandably, I again felt destined to win the title. Joe Frazier was next. He’d be a stepping stone to the new champ, George Foreman. I wasn’t going to get unlucky this time. There was really no luck about it. Frazier’s left hook almost tore out my right eye. I have no idea why I didn’t quit then. I gave it one more try against a major opponent in 1975, and muscular Ken Norton ripped my head. Now everyone, even trainers and promoters, said I should quit. And I did, intensifying my alcohol and cocaine abuse and rough domestic style that eventually resulted in three marriages and divorces, before coming back two years later. I looked horrible until finally nailing a weak-jawed Italian and then quit again until 1983 when I beat two guys who couldn’t fight much. The scariest news came when Sports Illustrated published cognitive medical tests showing I’d suffered irreversible brain damage and had dementia pugilistica, which meant I was punch drunk and would become more so. They concluded the same about renowned brawler Bobby Chacon. I said the medical testers could wipe their butts with the article. And I would ignore them again. At age 47 in 1992, wanting to launch a comeback in middle-age like George Foreman, I, who’d earned a couple of million dollars in my career, accepted a thousand bucks to take on a guy who couldn’t have sparred with me in my prime but knocked me around the ring for six rounds. The next day I didn’t remember what happened.
It was way too late by then. When was it too late for my brother Mike? I suppose no talented twenty-one year old is going to retire, even after a brutal knockout loss to Bob Foster. Mike kept fighting and beating most opponents and lost only decisions to top guys. In his corner I wasn’t alarmed until the third time he fought Mike Rossman, in 1977. Two years earlier he’d decisioned Rossman. The following year Rossman reversed that. Now my brother was battered and stopped in the sixth round and afterward I screamed at him, “Say it. Say it.” Say you won’t fight anymore. It may already have been too late, but maybe not.
There’s no quit in a Quarry. Mike fought five more years and, counting his Rossman fights, lost six of his last twelve including four by knockout. That’s really what happens when fighters don’t quit. We take beatings and our damaged brains start grinding out unintelligible sounds delivered by thick tongues. Soon after leaving the ring we shuffle like men in their eighties and can’t work even menial jobs or recall what we did this morning and at night we hear voices that make us scream. While our brains continue to shrink fast, we need to be cared for like babies and eventually we can’t walk or talk at all and our dead brains shut down our breathing. Imagine, that was my life until I came to Shafter Memorial Park in 1999. That was Mike’s life and that of others who have the same unknowing gaze I had the 1995 night I was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. I wish I’d really known I was there.
I wish Muhammad Ali hadn’t fought so much he got pugilistic Parkinson’s and lost his speaking ability so long ago I was able to note in an interview: “It’s a guarantee he’s not the guy he was.” I wish I hadn’t insisted I was fine. I wasn’t any more than my former opponents Floyd Patterson, who died from boxing-induced Alzheimer’s disease, and incoherent Jimmy Ellis. It’s also too late for paralyzed Greg Page, a once large and fast heavyweight contender who was critically injured at age forty-one while fighting in a dump that lacked proper medical equipment, and died a few years later. I pray it’s not too late for my youngest brother Bobby, who didn’t fight nearly as long as the guys above but still has suffered nerve damage in his brain. That’s probably why he was in prison and had to get a special one-day pass to come to Mike’s memorial service.
Bad as it is, maybe we were the lucky ones. Lots of guys died soon after being carried from the ring. Duk-Koo Kim and Johnny Owen and Benny “Kid” Paret and Frankie Campbell are among the most publicized. They were either fighting for championships or fighting championship caliber guys. We don’t hear much about the pugs killed in filthy halls in front of howling, intoxicated punks who don’t remotely have the guts to step into a ring. I know what the sports studies say. There are more deaths per capita in football and auto racing and lots of other sports than in boxing. I don’t know about that. I just understand that in boxing the primary objective is to destroy the other guy’s brain. So don’t shovel any crap about people paying big money to watch guys fight defensively.
I like the way my brother Jimmy, the one who knocked me out in a family sparring session and later cared for me, summed up boxing. In a 1995 television interview, as I stood nearby in an eternal and deepening cave, he said: “We won’t let dogs fight, we won’t let chickens fight, because we care about the animals. But we’ll let two men get in the ring and beat each others’ brains out.”
George Thomas Clark is the author of Uppercuts: Tales from the Ring, a collection of boxing stories available as an eBook at Amazon.com and other Digital Stores. His short story collection, The Bold Investor, is also available. See the author’s website at www.GeorgeThomasClark.com.