JERRY QUARRY died Sunday, the victim of pugilistica dementia, or in plain English, too many clean, hard shots to the head for too many years. If you're a hard-core boxing fan, your heart sank just a little more. First Archie Moore in December, now Quarry.
"Irish" Jerry Quarry did, indeed, seem to have a penchant for blocking punches with his face. But his pugilistic assets far outweighed his liabilities. He could dish 'em out as well as he took 'em, and he was the best counterpuncher of his day. The "greatest heavyweight champion we never had," some have called him.
Classic Sports Network, the cable channel that's the perfect antidote to that affliction known as 1990s boxing, recently reran the first fight between Quarry and Joe Frazier in 1969. Frazier then held a share of the heavyweight title, Muhammad Ali having been stripped of his championship and banished from boxing two years before.
Frazier-Quarry I is, like Quarry, vastly underrated. It ranks up there with the heavyweight fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, Louis and Billy Conn I, the Ali-Frazier fights and Ali vs. George Foreman. Quarry's critics claimed he hadn't fought up to par in previous fights against former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and Jimmy Ellis, who beat the Irishman for a share of Ali's title.
Frazier, as was his trademark, came out throwing punches. Quarry stood in front of him, not backing up, not giving ground, and matching Frazier punch for punch. They went at it for seven rounds like that, when the ring physician ruled that Quarry was cut up so badly he couldn't go on.
Quarry flew off his stool in a rage, protesting vainly that the fight should continue. Looking at the tape of the fight, you know that if it weren't for the cuts, he could have continued. If prizefights had no limits, and if Quarry hadn't been cut, he and Frazier might be fighting to this day.
A year later, Ali returned to the ring and fought Quarry in Atlanta. Cuts stopped Quarry again after three rounds. He watched as Ali fought Frazier four months later for the big money. Ali defeated Quarry again in 1972.
But anyone who thought boxing's most genuine Great White Hope in years was through proved to be dead wrong. In 1973, Quarry beat rising heavyweight contender Ron Lyle, smacking him around the ring for a good 12 rounds. Quarry then met Earnie Shavers, the deadliest one-punch knockout artist of his era, who had dispatched Ellis in one round.
Early in their fight, Shavers nailed Quarry with a right hand dead on the button. Quarry barely blinked, and you knew at that precise instant Shavers probably kissed his butt goodbye. He fell in two rounds.
But other contenders arrived on the scene. Foreman upset Frazier with a two-round knockout early in 1973. Ken Norton did the same to Ali later in the year.
Quarry was making a comeback, but fight fans could sense his desperation. With three contenders ahead of him, he resorted to an uncharacteristic ploy: He played the race card.
"Black boxers are scared to fight me," Quarry proclaimed, referring, no doubt, to Foreman, Ali, Frazier and Norton. Quarry fought and lost to Frazier a second time in 1974 but never got another title shot.
Near the end of his life, he was reduced to a shell of himself, punch-drunk and yearning for his glory years. The anti-boxing crowd will have a field day with his sad ending. They will renew their demand that boxing be abolished, that "brain-beating" is not a sport, that boxing is brutal and barbaric. They will cite Quarry as proof.
The only thing proved by Quarry's sad end is that boxing is simply truth in advertising. Pugilism and the pro sports of football, hockey, baseball and basketball base their popularity on that decades-old love of all Americans: male-on-male violence. Boxing might be tough on the brain, but ask any retired National Football League player how his knees or his back feel. Try telling Darryl Stingley -- a former New England Patriots wide receiver paralyzed by a vicious but legal hit from Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum -- about the perils of boxing.
What is needed is not a ban on boxing but a national boxing commission that will enforce safety measures for professional bouts -- headgear, heavier gloves, shorter rounds and shorter fights -- that boxing fans are sure to loathe.
There's one other thing a national boxing commission could do: require mandatory annual CAT scans so that doctors know when a guy's brain has had enough and can force him into retirement. The sad ending of Jerry Quarry proves that fighters can't be trusted to know when they've had enough.
Pub Date: 1/06/99