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Irish Jerry Quarry, an Uncrowned Champion
by Don Colgan
In the wake of the passing of a significant sports figure, regardless of the realm from which he or she came, it's not uncommon for a degree of revisionist history to envelop the print media. Nostalgia in America has swollen over the past two decades. As we seek the shelter of simpler times, a linkage to old and familiar figures is magnified and often overstated.
The 1969 Mets, and Jets as well, authored astonishing and historically relevant achievements. Bobby Riggs was a Wimbledon Champion and the finest of his early 1940s era. Joe Namath was great, for a while. He forged a new alignment in football and institutionalized the greatest sports spectacular of all time. All seem bigger than life today. In reality, they were great for an instant. Only an instant!
Yet it seems that often a great achiever forges a successful, often brilliant career only to be engulfed by giants. Few remember that Jerry Koosman, second fiddle to Tom Terrific for nearly ten seasons, won more than 220 games and pitched successfully into the mid 1980s. The New York Rangers, forever in pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup, were positively stellar from 1969 through 1974, yet they couldn’t do anything about the Montreal Canadians, the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers. An even greater example is the ABA New York Nets, winning two league championships in the mid 1970s and anchored by the great Erving, the indomitable Billy Paultz, among others. Hopelessly buried by the Knicks, the Nets' success was perfunctorily noted and quickly dismissed. When was the last time the Knicks won a league championship?
Often in sports a stereotype is applied and acquires a life of its own. It defies achievement, it defies the record and it defies fact. All who lived through the late 1960s and early '70s remember Jerry Quarry. Irish tough, Quarry could box with the best and punch with the rest. He was durable, resilient, and always there when he should have been long gone. The finest tribute I’ve ever heard paid to Jerry was by Don Dunphy before the Quarry vs. Shavers heavyweight elimination bout in December 1973. Quarry was entering the ring when Dunphy, who rarely wasted a syllable, said of Jerry, "He’s lost only to the best."
Jerry died a few years ago. Puglistica dementia claimed his life. He was 53. Undoubtedly his sad decline and death were precipitated by the punishment he took in the ring, particularly the batterings at the hands of Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, and Ken Norton. The enduring image of Quarry In the minds of most boxing fans is a badly battered Jerry being pummeled by Joe Frazier and by Ken Norton, in what was to be his finale as a serious heavyweight contender.
A face-first white fighter. A bleeder. Blew every shot he had. Cruel as these characterizations may seem, these were the images that came to mind when the mainstream sports fans thought of Jerry Quarry. Only when reminded that Jerry was the No. 1-ranked heavyweight in the world on no fewer than four occasions from 1968 to 1974, defeating, often overwhelming, a pride of the finest heavyweights in the world during that span, do we elicit the response, "I never knew that." Quarry compiled a record far exceeding that of many former and future heavyweight titleholders, competing in the most ferocious and competitive era in the history of his weight class.
Jerry made his first impression on the fight public when he held former heavyweight titleholder Floyd Patterson to a draw in 1967, with the ex champ paying a visit to the canvas in the process. Included in the 1968 WBA elimination tournament to "replace" Ali, the California Irishman was matched with Patterson again. This time Quarry earned a hard-fought decision and found himself paired with the tournament favorite, heavy hitting Thad Spencer.
Spencer was a solid favorite to dispose of Quarry and publicly forecast a knockout victory over his young opponent. What took place that Saturday afternoon startled the boxing world. Quarry staggered Spencer with the first right hand he threw and proceeded to throttle his taller, heavier opponent. By round 12 Quarry had a substantial points lead and seemed en route to a lopsided decision when he rocked Thad again with less than a minute remaining in the round. Exploding left hooks and straight rights against a now helpless Spencer Jerry attacked ferociously, forcing a stoppage at 2:58 of round 12 and a date with Jimmy Ellis for the WBA heavyweight crown.
Jerry lost to Ellis. Boxing cautiously, he allowed Ellis to dictate the tempo of the bout. In the seventh and again in the thirteenth, he jolted Ellis yet never really established control. Ellis earned a majority verdict. Quarry claimed a bad back, but the rap he was forced to live with for the remainder of his career, "he couldn’t win the big one," was firmly in place.
The following June, Jerry got his second chance, against Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who was nearing his glorious prime. Quarry vowed to punch with Joe and took the fight into the Garden ring that he should have brought against Ellis. The first round of Frazier vs. Quarry was arguably the round of the year, perhaps of the decade. Quarry out-punched Frazier repeatedly, rocked him late in the round, and left the big crowd delirious. Quarry took the second and split the third, yet the Frazier attack and the emerging cuts over Quarry’s eyes were too much to overcome. Quarry couldn’t answer the bell for the eight round in a tremendous slugfest in which he never gave an inch.
With two big chances missed, Jerry was already considered on the downside of his career. The following June, he was matched against undefeated, No. 1-ranked Mac Foster. Foster had secured knockout victories in every bout. Quarry was hurt early, but he took the fight to Foster and stopped him in six rounds. Again ranked first in the division, Jerry was Ali’s choice for his comeback bout after the Supreme Court cleared the way for the great ex-champion to return to the ring. The bout was held in Atlanta and Ali opened up Quarry’s right eye in the third round. Jerry never really got going, and in an instant it was over.
Jerry was halted again by Ali the following year and seemed unquestionably through as a viable force in the heavyweight division. Then in early 1973, a new knockout artist had emerged and was viewed as a major threat to big George Foreman, Frazier’s conqueror. Ron Lyle was undefeated, a powerful puncher, and a Madison Square Garden date with the now trial horse Quarry seemed a mere formality for Lyle. Jerry never looked better; he outboxed and out-punched Lyle at every turn, winning no fewer than eight rounds.
Reestablished as a top contender once again, Jerry had another Garden party in '73, this time in December against another top-ranked slugger, Earnie Shavers. Shavers had crushing power in both fists and a delicate chin. For one of the few times In his career, Quarry was favored and acted the part. Shavers came out bombing and Jerry met him punch for punch. The bout lasted two and one half minutes and again Jerry Quarry had climbed to the top of the heavyweight ranks.
George Foreman and Dick Sadler took careful note of Jerry’s latest ascendancy. A Foreman vs. Quarry heavyweight title bout was tentatively scheduled for June 20, 1974, at Madison Square Garden, yet it never was brought to contract. Instead Jerry had to get past his old nemesis Joe Frazier, now well past his prime. Jerry and Joe were evenly matched this time, and many scribes predicted a Quarry KO victory. On the brink of one last title shot, Jerry again left his fight in the gym. Frazier battered him worse than in '69 and stopped him in the fifth round.
Quarry was finally at the end of the trail. He had one last chance, another Garden main event the following June, against Ken Norton at his ferocious best. Jerry gave it his all, throwing big punches until the end. Norton battered him terribly after the third round, and by the middle of the fifth, the referee rescued a bloodied and battered Quarry.
Jerry had the misfortune of contending in an era of three great champions. He defeated Patterson, Mathis, Spencer, Foster, Lyle, and Shavers. Had his back been healthy, he would have beaten Ellis, and his loss to George Chuvalo was a fluke. He thoroughly beat Lyle, who had Foreman down twice and nearly out. He halted Shavers in one round, the same Shavers who nearly stopped Holmes and did away with Norton in one round. Foster was a knockout machine until Jerry put him away, and Spencer was widely regarding as Ali’s successor until Quarry punished him and put him away.
Jerry Quarry would have beaten Max Baer, James J. Braddock, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Floyd Patterson (even in his prime), Ingemar Johansson, John Tate, Michael Dokes, Greg Page, and certainly Buster Douglas. Tyson, at his brutal best, would have had problems with Jerry’s iron chin and skilled counterpunching. He would have enjoyed a comfortable reign in the early and middle 1930s as well as the late '40s and early '50s. He certainly would have captured WBA, WBC or IBF belt in the 1980s.
George Foreman spoke volumes when he ranked Jerry on his Web site as the greatest fighter never to become champion. Big George said: "Had he punched with Ellis and boxed Frazier, he would have been champion. When I was heavyweight champion of the world, I purposely dodged him."
I think Jerry would have
knocked him out!
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