RIGHT ON THE MONEY

Jimmy Ellis, his days as Muhammad Ali's sparring partner far behind him, crashed home an effective right hand to win the WBA version of the heavyweight championship and, finally, a chance at better paydays
May 05, 1968

For the old man life has always been hell. His eyes tell you where he has been, his hands tell you what he has done and even now, though his belly is full, when you look at him you think of lost men plucking guitars on city steps or a kid's empty, mountaineer face caught behind the flutter of a soiled window shade. Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, his eyes always say.

Machines failed, crops failed in the dust. Goodby to all that. He left East Texas for the road, a road of night fires, of boxcars where people killed other people, a road of sadistic railroad bulls. Keep away from Denver Bob, he uses a whip—after he clubs you across the chin. Don't run from Fort Worth Red. With gun or knife, Red never misses.

The old man, Jack Quarry, reached out last week just one more time for a piece of a world that had always been inaccessible. He sent his son, heavyweight Jerry Quarry, out to retrieve his pride, broken a thousand times on a thousand lonely nights, out to make up for all the injustices, all the cold city nights when nobody understood.

Saturday night in Oakland Jerry Quarry, his youth just as unrooted as his father's, his suspicions and resentments just as strong, was out in front of the largest viewing audience in the history of televised sports. From Morocco to Tokyo, people watched him go against Jimmy Ellis for the World Boxing Association's heavyweight championship. He was the white boy, with the crumpling right hand and jaw of ingot, who was to be the key to another abundant, glamorous era in boxing.

To many more, less interested in the status of boxing, those in the large cities and small towns who are scared or just simply combative, he was a symbol. Nowhere was it more evident than in Oakland. The Black Panthers, the militant Negro group, were restless. White vigilante groups, behind curious leadership, demanded recognition. The intense atmosphere did not move Quarry. He accepted no bigoted allegiance and resisted the dementia swirling about him. His behavior glittered.

Quarry's performance in the ring was less striking. A crowd of 14,000 paid to see him exhibit lifelessness, inexperience and much ineffectual punching. It watched Ellis, once almost ruined in the middleweight division, create a tactical masterpiece that, though soporific to television viewers and the live crowd, was demanded against the deadly counterpunching of Quarry. Ellis was intelligent and cruel with his long, slashing right hand. Even more than the right and his ring generalship, his jab was the decisive weapon. His fight belonged to those who appreciate delicate artistry, not to those who only recognize heavy-handed slaughter.

The California judges, as always, remained shamefully insensitive to anything resembling subtlety of skill. The referee scored the fight 7-6 Ellis. One judge had it 10-5 Ellis; another, who should never have been given a pencil, called it a draw, 6-6. "California's a nice place to visit," said one manager, "but put a gun in my back before I fight there." Quarry himself concurred: "If they'd given me the decision, I'd have given it back. I didn't deserve it."

Quarry's candor was refreshing. He knew he did not come close in this fight. Quarry is always waiting to counter, especially on the ropes where he feels secure. He cannot lead and is unskilled at finding openings. Ellis refused to follow him to the ropes, and in a fight cluttered with undramatic moments the most interesting moves came when Ellis would walk backward and leave Quarry hanging bewildered on the ropes. "Let 'im lay there talkin' to himself," screamed Angelo Dundee, Ellis' manager. "Make him fight in the center of the ring."

Ellis, who is a habitual gambler in the ring, for once followed orders. When Quarry did come off the ropes he was confused and his punching was un-rhythmic. His usually quick hands were slow and errant. He seldom reached Ellis with the vicious body attack he sometimes has displayed; and his right hand to the head looked like it had an iron weight tied to it. He did catch Ellis with a left hook in the 13th round and then followed up with a right hand, but suddenly he dropped his guns. "Quarry had the fist but nothin' up here," said Ellis' cutman, Chickie Ferrara, tapping his finger on his head.

Ellis only occasionally forgot his instructions. Throughout his training he honed his jab and he seldom discarded it during the fight. The most vital blow in boxing, the jab is both an offensive and a defensive measure. It is the one sound opening for every advance; it is also extremely effective in destroying a big puncher's concentration. Ellis' did do that to Quarry. Only a gambler with a big heart can beat the jab. Quarry, whose youth seemed to make gambling easy, has the heart but he refused to move against the jab. Had he taken its sting and pain and stayed on top of Ellis, the fight might have turned around.

Ellis, to be certain, could not gamble in any way against Quarry. He has too much past (a lachrymose career among the middleweights of short money and much punishment) and he does not have enough future. He is 28 now, and he has been a black fighter for over a decade. To be a black fighter, even the least carnivorous of managers will agree, is a "stomped down life, a stone-hard road." Few pamper the black fighter. He has to fight from the moment he steps in a gym. It is an axiom among white fight managers: "You have to find out early if the black boy has any dog in him."

The managers do find out early. But they know, too, that a white fighter remains a property. While often the black boys unload freight or work on the docks during the day, then spend long dreary hours in the gym at night, the white fighter is "romanced"—no job, no fights over his head, the best equipment, expensive sparring partners. Ellis, hardly bitter but certainly no fool, survived this separate and unequal treatment and learned his trade the way few fighters ever do. His two years as Muhammad Ali's sparring partner were another sort of embarrassment. "I have my secret thoughts," says Ellis, "but why bring them out and have them kicked around?"

Ellis' aversion to controversy was sharpened by his time with Ali. The fighters, though friendly, were never close. Often, in camp Ellis seemed to be just a phlegmatic, machinelike figure, but he was never obsequious to Ali. That alone separated him from those who fluttered about the champion. With Ellis it was a matter of holding on to his pride.

"We were in Chicago," says fighter Willie Johnson, "in trainin'. One day Jimmy belts Ali right on the chin. Ali's legs do this little number and he fall right into the ropes. He weren't seein' nothin'. He was stone-cold shook up. But that was nothin' the way Herbert Muhammad, his manager, was. Right off, Herbert, well he want Jimmy out of the camp. Jimmy needed the job, but he wouldn't go see nobody and play up to them. Herbert cooled but he didn't let Jimmy work for a few days."

There were other tense moments in Ellis' relationship with Ali. When Ali still had the house in Miami and Ellis was working with him, there was quiet exchange over second-class treatment. At meals the guests, brothers and various backslappers were served first. Often, when it came time for the sparring partners to eat, there was not much left. Ellis put up with this for a while, then one day announced he was going into town for his supper. This dinner protocol and his sleeping quarters—the size of a closet—were soon changed.

"I was made out to be nothin' but a sparring partner," says Ellis. "It bothered me to be run down like that. I was more than that. I knew it. I think I've proven that now."

Before last week's fight Ellis seemed quite annoyed at the unceasing "white hope" prattle, even though Quarry bluntly refused the odious designation, thus mollifying the bellicose Black Panthers. More than anything, what disconcerted Ellis was the fact that Quarry had a large following among the black population in Oakland. "If Quarry wins, boxing will be great again," said one black man in the gym. A black fighter countered: "Us spooks is like crabs in a can. One tries to climb out and five others reach up and pull him back."

Ellis is now too far along to be pulled back by anybody. He, like Quarry, received $125,000 for the fight, and Ellis is only interested in the money. He has become the black fighter who grabs the money and runs. He is not interested in becoming a legend. The heavyweight title, suddenly awash in chaos and backdoor politics, will be difficult to reunite. Ellis is the WBA's champion, Joe Frazier holds the title in five states and Ali, exiled and smothering in a morass of litigation, is the champion of the "thinking" part of the universe. Nobody, of course, has accused those who legislate in boxing of ever having a single sensible or unselfish idea calculated to dispel the confusion.

It is fairly certain that an Ellis-Frazier fight is quite remote. Sports Action, Inc., which packaged the tournament, will try desperately to make the bout, but the people behind each fighter will be inordinately recalcitrant. The eight-man WBA tournament, despite some dismal performances and severe losses absorbed by Sports Action, can be viewed as a success if only because it brought movement to the heavyweight division. Constant coverage on ABC television helped and the ratings—three fights drew the highest ratings in ABC's sports programming for the year—indicate a respectable growth in boxing interest. The packagers have profited from the tournament. Sports Action will make $100,000, admittedly a meager sum for one year's work. But one guesses the Sports Action people are relieved they no longer have to deal with the Quarry family.

Father Jack and his family, 41 strong including relatives, are pleasant, passionate and tribal people. The championship for Jerry meant much to Jack. With victory, he finally would be convinced that he was an entity, that he belonged to a world that had rejected him. He came to California, just off of a boxcar, with an East Dallas pocketknife and the clothes on his back. But now he was not a man to be taken lightly. He had his own ideas on what came next and who would reap the benefits of his son's ascendancy. But there was not much illusion left in him, and he knew when the dream had died.

"Tell you this, I give the fight to Ellis 8-6," said Father Jack, his hands twisting over his knuckles. Each knuckle had a letter on it, and when the hands were extended the letters read: Hard Luck. The city nights, you could tell, were still cold, and people were sitting inside bright, warm houses and Jack Quarry was very hungry.

PHOTOLanding with the right, as he did often during the fight, Jimmy Ellis twists the head of a grimacing Jerry Quarry, trying gamely to cover up. TWO PHOTOSNew champion Ellis (above), his arms supported in victory salute, manages a weak smile as loser Quarry, tired and dejected, bows over ropes.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)