Jerry Quarry, the trial horse who has beaten some good fighters and lost to the best, was supposed to be a testing block for Ron Lyle, a neophyte from Denver who had never beaten the best but had never lost to anyone. Quarry proved himself a block, all right—the kind people stumble on. In a good, thoroughly exciting bout at Madison Square Garden last week he gave Lyle, in only his 20th professional fight, a postgraduate course in the art of fisticuffs.
It took only four rounds, two of which he lost, for Quarry to explore Lyle's somewhat mechanical, plodding style. Once he had solved its minimal problems, Quarry fought jauntily, crisply and—something new for him—with intense concentration.
Lyle, winner by a knockout in 17 of his 19 bouts, never came close to hurting Quarry but he was staggered twice himself: once by a short, straight right hand in the fourth round and again by a wide, winging left hook in the eighth. The first shot taught him that he could be hit and hurt, the second convinced him that he was not nearly as invincible as he once supposed.
Before the fight Lyle and Bobby Lewis, his trainer, were confident. "I won't tell you how we will defeat Quarry," Lewis said behind his spectacularly bushy mustache. "I will say we set up Buster Mathis for hooks, and Ron took Buster out with hooks. We set up Luis Pirez for the right hand, and Ron knocked Luis out with a right hand. We set up Larry Middleton for the left hook, and Ron knocked Larry out with a left hook."
Whatever they set Quarry up for, it didn't work. Lewis did say before it all began that Lyle should let Quarry, a superb counterpuncher, come to him. Lyle, unwisely, went to Quarry.
For all his inexperience, Lyle did have a good first round, losing it finally by the eighth of an inch of a whistling missed punch. Fighting flat-footed and obviously not as quick as Quarry, he scored occasionally with a ponderous right. He lost the round when Quarry, sensibly ignoring that right, banged him with numerous and numbing lefts and rights to the belly and kidneys.
In the second round Lewis began yelling to Lyle to take charge. Lyle did, as well as he could, and the second was to be the best round he had all night. Once he cornered Quarry and hit him twice in the head with a short right and a left hook, but neither caused any serious damage. Encouraged, Lyle went forth in the next round and did something only the rankest amateurs—or the very best professionals—ever try. He threw a right-hand lead, a maneuver which so surprised Quarry that it worked—that one time. It was costly, though, and what it really accomplished was the restoration of Quarry's concentration. Nothing else that happened all night had so sobering an effect on the Californian. Up to that moment Quarry had been curiously complacent, belying the bright blue-green stare he fixed on Lyle. Suddenly he seemed reminded of past fights that he had lost more for the occasional mental lapse than for any lack of physical ability. Explaining that later, Quarry said, "I had a lot of emotional problems before. I didn't keep my mind on my business."
He had his mind on the business at hand in the fourth round, during which he struck the most decisive, if not the most damaging, blow of the fight. Lyle, strangely, had been giving away the advantage he owned in size and reach. He fought either with his hands up close to his head or he pawed with both hands, out and apart. In the fourth his left and right paws landed on Quarry, who immediately countered with a short, chopping right between Lyle's gloves that caught him squarely on the point of the chin. Lyle's confidence began to sag; his style became tentative. "Take charge," Lewis yelled again from the corner to his fighter. The idea now appeared furthest from Lyle's ambitions.
"That shot made him a defensive fighter," Quarry said after the bout. "You give me a defensive fighter and I'll pound him. I pounded Ron for the rest of the fight this night."
He hit Lyle again with a stronger right hand in the fifth round, followed that with a flurry of lefts and rights and had Lyle in trouble before the bell saved him. From that point on the fight was never in doubt. Lyle came out for the first minute of the last six rounds with his hands up and close to his head, trying to jab. On his toes and moving quickly from side to side, Quarry slipped the jabs and the occasional slow right cross and came in with booming left hooks to the stomach and short, cruel right hands to the kidney. When the punishment became too much, Lyle dropped his hands, whereupon Quarry switched his target to the head. He was fighting surely and carefully for a change and he took no chances. Gil Clancy, who became Quarry's trainer some three months ago, saw to that. "Don't be some kind of wild Irishman," he told Quarry over and over again. "Don't get hit by a lucky punch trying for a knockout. Just play it cool."
Quarry played it cool. He doubled with each hand—left hook to the belly, left hook to the head, short, inside right to the kidney, short, looping right to the head—and Lyle never learned to counter any of the punches. He fought back but his blows grew slower with each round. Then in the eighth Lyle made his little mistake again. He led with his right and was nearly knocked out. The stab landed high on the side of Quarry's head and left Lyle wide open for a left hook, which was not long in coming. It caught him on the cheek and knocked him stumbling, some six feet back into the ropes. Had he been closer to the center of the ring, he might well have gone down.
Quarry tried to take advantage of the blow, keeping Lyle on the ropes and banging him five more times with short, hurting punches but Lyle showed that, if nothing else, he can take punishment. He endured the onslaught for fully half a minute before, in the manner of a man who has just been caught in the running of the Pamplona bulls, meandering dazedly to his corner at the bell.
For the rest of the fight, Quarry had more trouble with his trunks than he did with Lyle. They were either too large or the elastic was too loose and they had a tendency to slip down; sometimes he had to quit fighting in order to hitch them up during a round. Finally Quarry's seconds pinned them together so he could devote himself to belaboring Lyle at will. Quarry won, handily. Referee Waldemir Schmidt, more generous than the judges, awarded Lyle four rounds, but Quarry really had lost only the second and the third. Slight contusions under both eyes and alongside his nose were the only clues that he had been in a fight.
"He didn't hurt me with any punches," Quarry said in his dressing room. "He butted me a lot, and the referee let him get away with it. The only time I really felt anything was when he butted me in the mouth." Quarry pulled down his lower lip to show a long, bluish abrasion on the inside.
"I knew I had the fight from the fourth round on," Quarry said. "He hits hard but he's not fast with his feet or with his hands. And I was in the best shape for this fight I've ever been in. I was strong and quick at the end and I think I'm ready for anyone now. I've got my head straight and I've got a hell of a trainer to work with."
Despite the thumping he took, Lyle showed little evidence of it. His body was bruised but his head was not and he accepted adversity stoically, something one might very well have expected from a man of 30 who had spent 7½ years in a Colorado prison on a murder charge. Losing a simple fight was not going to bother Ron Lyle very much. "You have to take the bumps with the lumps," he said rather obscurely. "I still will be the heavyweight champion of the world. Quarry was beautiful tonight, but I learned a lot from him. I'll be back."
Well, maybe. As for Quarry, his victory hardly changes the heavyweight picture, at least not at the very top. A couple of days after the fight, George Foreman, the new heavyweight champion who knocked out Joe Frazier in two rounds in Jamaica, seemed reluctant to accept Quarry as a challenger, and his manager, Dick Sadler, did not seem to want Quarry at all. It is hard to say why. Lyle, despite his knockout record, showed little punch last Friday evening, certainly nothing to be compared to Foreman's thunderous blows. And Quarry has amply demonstrated in the past that he is no threat to either Frazier or Muhammad Ali.
So the heavyweight division, which had hoped for a fourth outstanding fighter, is going to have to get along for awhile with three. Which is really quite enough. The problem is getting them to fight each other before the two of them become too old.