The ring is a relentless brute from which no fighter can hide forever. It melted the glare of Sonny Liston and revealed him as an actor who relied on intimidation. It is beginning to show that the charm and style of Nino Benvenuti, no matter how genuine, should never be confused with ring character. Tirelessly, it has peeled off the layers of Floyd Patterson, his cloudy psyche, the gnawing torment of his lonesome search for expiation and, currently, the fragile humaneness that stirs his mob of evangelists. And, in another vein, it proved Ali to be much more than just a narcissistic bigmouth.
In time all of them find out who they are. For many it happens early, after too many cut lips in dusty, walk-up gyms or after too many nights alone trying to catch a dream that keeps promising but always dies to the same lyrics: "four rounds, hunnert bucks, take it or leave it." But it takes a while for the others, those with gifts, passions and special powers, the ones for whom fights are cautiously chosen, the ones who, out of confusion and fear, wait for their time behind carefully constructed facades that hide their doubts and muffle their emotions.
The wait can be long for some, but always it comes, that certain moment: the right night, the right fight, the rare combination that produces high drama. It is a time that demands that character be created and revealed to a crowd which, for the most part, seems ignorant of all that is moving to the artist and poet—or even to the kind of man who sees the ring as a beautiful, human expression in a time of frightening technocracy. Too often, lamentably, the drama seems as difficult to fathom as the prose of Gertrude Stein, but then comes the one moment that clearly whispers of a majesty lost across a century.
The brush of Artist George Bellows might hesitate, and a Pierce Egan might wince, but to many the heavyweight championship match June 23 in Madison Square Garden between Jerry Quarry and Joe Frazier promises such a moment. It has been a long time since the ring has had a hot current coursing through its weary structure, a current humming with theories, emotions and seething prejudice. Unquestionably the alchemy for the moment is there: style, race, age and, at long last, that time in the strange career of Jerry Quarry. "Finally the time has come," says Quarry, "when I find just what I'm all about."
June 15, 1969
What Quarry, at 24, is all about is not easily discerned, but there is no doubt about him visually. In that grimy, solemn temple of con and torn flesh once known as Stillman's he would have drawn a crowd. He is simply a confluence of boxing characteristics, a prize pit bulldog, a man bred for the ring. A 17½ neck girds a strong chin, the abdominal muscles are a washboard, the sloping shoulders (size 50) are those of a puncher and his whole body is wired with exquisite coordination and acute reflexes. Also he is Irish—and anyone who has ever listened to the crimson tales in those saloons with long dark-stained bars knows that all Irishmen love to brawl. Despite the strong opposite opinion that Irish ferocity lies only in verbs, Quarry has applied himself diligently to milling out of the ring. He has flattened two of his brothers with a minimum of motivation and on another occasion broke his hand on the head of a baseball umpire who, he thought, was excessively myopic. Then there was the time when a customer tried to lift the pool cues from his bar. "Let's have them," said Quarry, "or I'm going to the sheriff's office." He changed his mind, though, when the two cues were broken over his head, and he dispatched the customer to the hospital.
Lest the Irish in New York—that capital of professional blarney—become too proud, it is well to point out that, essentially, Quarry is not really Irish. The soul and the heart are pure Okie. He is very much the son of his father, Jack, a man who left the dust bowl of East Texas, rode the rails, felt the clubs of the railroad dicks, cursed the endless ache of an empty stomach and hallucinated about burning down homes because inside there were lights and warmth and the people were not hungry. Jack ended up in a little town near the Mexican border, and then, like so many others, he turned northward toward the California dream. That life is still etched on the old man's face and reflected in the fierce tribal instinct of the family. For a long time it was scratch and crawl in California, yet together the Quarrys survived. Jerry followed his father to the Greyhound bus garage as a tire changer, but the dreariness of the family's past and his own present, combined with his parents' urging, pushed him toward the ring. It all happened so quickly, and there it was at last—the California dream, a fine home for his parents and himself, the end of rootlessness and a firm hold on the rung of success. He belonged.
"All of a sudden," he says, "my friends were saying, 'Well, I guess you won't wanna be around people like us anymore.' 'Hell,' I tell them, 'why I am people like us.' "
He has not been, nor does he wish to be, adopted by Beverly Hills. Certainly Frank Sinatra—long a collector of fighters—would not summon him for an audience. It is quite clear he is one with the inhabitants of those arid tract homes in Orange County, a Reagan Republican and a moderate, he says cautiously, in his views. He is already a symbol for those who thrust out their fists as answers to campus revolution and black insurrection.
He is also aware that he carries with him all the silent and loud hopes of those who feel that the heavyweight championship is a banner of white supremacy that is slowly being pulled down. It is all there in the mail he receives each week. Wisely, but unfortunately for promoters, Quarry stays away from the race issue, but if pressed he will reveal an attitude. "The black man," he says, "is yelling about prejudice. What makes me mad is the Government is afraid to do something about what they're doing. The black man is being prejudiced against the white man by those who don't want equality but superiority. But everybody's afraid to sock it to the black man. Still, as far as I'm concerned, I'm just a white fighter in a situation. I just fight for myself."
Sensibly, Quarry knows that no man could be less a villain than Joe Frazier, a joyful workman. "But yet," says Quarry, "I've been waiting for him for two and a half years. Not because he is black, but because he abused me, belittled me. All that talk about him being the iron horse. Well, this fight could be over in the first minute, and it ain't gonna be me who is down looking up." This brashness of his opponents—real or imagined—is forever being dredged up by Quarry before one of his fights. It makes one think that he is always searching for motivation, no matter how thin, that he is not at all certain he is of the same stock as, say, Jimmy Braddock who, while being badly mauled by Joe Louis, said to his manager, "If you stop this fight, I will never speak to you again."
The road up for Quarry has not been one on which he found garlands heaped upon him at every turn. True, he lured the press, but being a white heavyweight was costly. He seemed to be an irritant to people. The Los Angeles crowds, impatient with his progress and accustomed to the bloodletting of Mexican fighters, broke his spirit to the point that he now thinks of himself as a New York fighter.
The L.A. rejection was not entirely unjustified. Pushed beyond his experience, he was terribly uneven in his performances. His abilities were visible, but the crowds seemed to recognize some hidden flaw. His campaign through the heavyweights did not do much to allay suspicions. He nearly quit following a humiliating defeat by Eddie Machen, by then an unraveling retread. Then came his two fights with Patterson. He was forced to a draw in the first one and, thanks to the munificence of the officials, he stole the return fight. He floored Floyd a total of four times, but in both fights there was a common pattern: Quarry was never in either match in the late rounds. Patterson was confused. "He's terribly strong and he takes an excellent punch," said Floyd. "But this makes his style even less comprehensible. A man who has the strength he has should be more aggressive. He utilizes only 35% of his ability. Here you have a man who is either cheating himself or the public or both."
Quarry's fight with Thad Spencer was only a partial critical success; he punched Spencer—a dissipated prince of the night who could not even move in retreat because of a bad foot—nearly over the Golden Gate Bridge, but he could not finish him. It remained for Jimmy Ellis to all but crush Quarry's reputation, in the WBA title fight. This was a horrendous bore of a fight, and Quarry, who was unintelligent and placid, was left clinging to barely a thread of dignity. "I've never seen an Irishman become so discouraged so easily," observed one critic.
The whole experience, beginning with Machen, left its marks on Quarry. After the loss to Machen, his nerves were unaccountably shot. Being the economic strength of the family had not helped him much, but a psychologist, whom he consulted, wondered if he was emotionally equipped to handle defeat as well as victory. "I was just insecure, just immature," says Quarry now. "The responsibility tore me apart. I am a different guy. I used to worry about everything, my condition, my stamina, the other guy, everything. Always I was afraid of punching myself out. Now I don't worry about a thing. I just go out and put it to the other guy. Now I am a challenging fighter."
Quarry might well be a more aggressive fighter now—surely he was against Buster Mathis three months ago—but it does not seem likely, because he is an instinctive counterpuncher, an artisan who lays traps. Once a victim falls into one of them, the counterpuncher reaches down into his trick bag and comes up with a grenade. Quarry's steady ploy is one in which he leads his prey into a corner, like a spider leading a fly into a web. He invites punches and then counters within a tighter arc. It is a demanding, nerve-racking role, but Quarry has the gifts for his subtle chess game—flashing hand speed and short, punishing punches. "You fly in that man's face," says Patterson, "and he'll fire his hook. It's an awful punch and it's hard to take because it strikes without warning."
Oddly enough, for all of his erratic past, there is vast professional endorsement of Quarry before the Frazier match. It is based on a comparison of styles, which seems to indicate an advantage for Quarry. "Joe Frazier is a perfect foil for Quarry," says Angelo Dundee. "Quarry is a master trap-layer and Frazier falls into them. He is too proud to stay out. He'll come to Quarry, and anybody who does is in trouble." Says Cus D'Amato, "I lean to Quarry, although I hate to pick against Frazier. Frazier moves me. He's beautiful. All of that determination, competitiveness, raw courage, that refusal to be beaten. But I think that Quarry was late to mature, physically and emotionally."
There is no question that Frazier has troublesome defects. He drops his right hand to a dangerous level when he is throwing a left hook, which is his main gun. He comes at you in a straight line, his head sticking out as if he were looking over a fence. Because of these deficiencies, it appears imperative that Frazier advance behind a jab and fight within three inches of Quarry, smothering the punching radius that some believe Quarry must have. "Forget the figurin'," says Chickie Ferrara, who has trained Dick Tiger for years. "Forget the right hands and the counters. A guy can only get those punches off if he has time. What happens when he's under steady fire? What if he's under an artillery barrage? That's what Joe Frazier throws, bombs, and lots of 'em. He never stops."
The old trainer strikes at the heart of the conflict, the implacable valor and spirit of Frazier confronted by the instinctive countering of Quarry—or primitiveness vs. style. "Frazier will go down in the first round," says Quarry. "That's the round when he makes most of his mistakes, when he is trying to set his authority. I'll beat him to a hook every time he throws one." Perhaps. But if not, how will Quarry react when Frazier starts tearing chunks out of his questionable will? Will he come apart? Or will he suddenly rise to meet the brute from which he has hidden far too long?